Hosting a gathering of friends at your home may not be advisable at this time, but getting together with a flock of feathered friends is a great diversion. During the pandemic, birding has become a popular escape with sales for seed suppliers, birdhouse builders and other bird related businesses “through the roof,” according to Audubon Magazine.
Extending an invitation to the bird community is simply a matter of offering a meal. A backyard rich with trees and shrubs is an ideal place to hold the get-together, but a patio or rooftop will suffice. Provide a bounty of goodies, and birds will gather like eager children. Once the birds become regular guests, you can enjoy hours of entertainment watching the beauties, identifying them and, if you wish, photographing them.
Set the table
You can attract birds with a single feeder of mixed bird seed, but drawing a large and varied population requires multiple feeders, each offering treats meant to attract certain species. Tubular feeders, fitted with perches too small for large birds, are meant to attract finches and other small birds. This type of feeder can be filled with thistle seed — a favorite of finches — or mixed-seed finch food, which supplements the thistle seed with sunflower chips and millet, and attracts a greater variety of small birds.
A feeder with perches spacious enough for large birds, filled with a wild bird food blend that is rich with nuts, fruit and sunflower seeds, will attract cardinals, Steller’s jays, grackles and other big birds. A cage hung from a tree and containing suet cakes laced with peanuts or fruit is a favorite of woodpeckers, but other species will indulge as well. Red hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water will attract these magnificent specimens.
With feeders in place, patience is required. The birds will discover your banquet, but it could take weeks. Sparrows may show up first, and other small birds will follow. Soon blue jays, cardinals, grackles and others will arrive. Hummingbirds will stop by in the warmer months.
Once your feeders are established, you’ll see birds you haven’t seen before. Exactly what species you’ll encounter depends on where you are. During spring and fall migrations, birds on their way through your area may drop in for a snack.
When your home has become a favorite feeding ground, you can sit back and enjoy the show. A printed field guide, like “The Sibley Guide to Birds” or “The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America” will help you identify your visitors. If you’d rather go digital, the Audubon Bird Guide app is helpful.
Watching birds battle for position at the feeder is entertaining, as is taking note of the way they come and go. Some birds, including sparrows, fly rapidly in a straight line, like miniature missiles, flapping their wings frantically. Others, including finches, flap them intermittently, rising and falling like a roller coaster. Some birds have elaborate dining habits. Nuthatches pluck a seed from the feeder, wedge it in a tree-bark crevice and pound it with their beaks to break it open. In spring, you may see sparrows race back and forth from the feeder to nearby branches, where their young wait to be fed.
Get a closer look
Observing birds with the naked eye is entertaining, but most birders use binoculars. You can get a good pair for less than $150, or you can spend $3,000 on the best models. Audubon publishes a guide to binoculars that offers choices at every price level. Look for models that provide eight times magnification or more, so a bird will appear at least eight times larger when viewed through them than when viewed with the naked eye.
Or take a picture
Close-up photos of birds like those you see in National Geographic are stunning, but the equipment needed to achieve those results can be expensive. However, more modest photographic results are pleasing as well and can be achieved inexpensively.
Smartphones with a telephoto lens, like the iPhone 11 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy S10+, can record an image that approximates what you see with your naked eye. Other affordable options will provide more magnification. Hammacher Schlemmer offers digital camera binoculars for about $200 that can produce eight times images. Sharper Image offers a similar set of binoculars with 12 times magnification. Both can be mounted on a tripod and will produce acceptable images, but not the kind of crisp high-resolution photos seen in nature magazines.
If you want to approximate professional quality results, you’ll need a high-resolution 35 millimeter digital camera and a telephoto lens. Even if you buy used equipment, expect to pay at least $500. But that’s less expensive than even a very modest vacation, and for some it may be a worthwhile entertainment investment that provides many more hours of enjoyment than would a weekend trip.