After a Frantic Year, It’s Time for ‘Slow Birding’
The feeders are filled and hung; the scene is set. Are we ready to let our incessant daily to-do list take flight and settle in to watch the birds?
I’m not talking about the occasional glance out the window, but a long, contemplative look.
A new book, “Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard,” proposes doing just that — during feeder season and throughout the year. The author, Joan E. Strassmann, is an animal behaviorist and professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Slow birding, a term she adapted from the slow food movement, is not checklist-driven bird-watching, which may feel almost competitive, as if mandating that more is better, and rarer is best. For a slow birder — and Dr. Strassmann considers herself one — the payoff is not a longer life list, but connecting with and gaining insight into our inner circle of everyday birds.
“When someone asks what new or exciting birds I have seen on my morning walk, I smile and answer with delight as I name the commonest birds,” she writes.
The list she urges us to make is of what she calls our “home birds”: those in the backyard, or the neighborhood or park where we take our daily walks. The hope, she writes, is that we “might appreciate their actions and begin to understand the biological underpinnings of bird behavior.”
Besides being the most familiar, these species are also the most studied. In “Slow Birding,” Dr. Strassmann distills what the slowest birders of all — research scientists who devote years to unraveling a mystery about a single species — have learned.
Her own research career has focused on organisms that are not exactly crowd-pleasers: social wasps and social amoebae. “But many decades ago, I realized that birds were the way to teach concepts in animal behavior,” she said. “I always wanted my students to experience the joy of discovery.”
In the name of deeper discovery, Dr. Strassmann combed the scientific literature and profiled 16 household-name species, including the Northern cardinal and the blue jay. She offers suggestions on how to streamline scientific methods so we can study the birds ourselves, combining the mind-set of a biologist and the beginner’s mind of a meditator.
Her invocation: “These winged dinosaurs that have given up stored fat, hollowed their bones, and made many other compromises for flight — these organisms connect us with here and there, with then and now, as they chatter outside our windows or soar past our lives.”
Birds, she writes, are “our closest connection to wildness.” But what exactly are they doing out there?
Go Birding on an Empty Stomach
One tactic among many that Dr. Strassmann offers for being a better observer seems more empathic than purely scientific.
“I like to watch birds before breakfast, when I’m hungry,” she said. “I feel it connects me, because birds are always hungry.”
These lean, mean flying machines are never far from starvation. A laboratory study of dark-eyed juncos that she includes in the book found that the birds lose 7 percent of their body weight while they’re at rest overnight. That’s the equivalent of a 160-pound person losing a little more than 11 pounds during a single night’s sleep.
The backyard feeder can be our own informal laboratory. We may witness evidence of what is known as “vigilance behavior”: when certain birds face upward, watching for predators, while the others eat. Who does that, and for how long?
Signs of dominance are evident in this group setting, too. Who displaces whom on the feeder, or beneath it? Do particular species dominate, and do males or females of a particular species control the food-strewn turf? (A field guide, the Merlin app or Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website can help with identification and distinguishing the sexes.) Take notes.
Next, zero in on individuals. Try focal animal observation, a method named by a Princeton University researcher studying baboons in Kenya in the 1970s. Choose one feeder bird and watch it for a predetermined time span, writing down its every action. For instance, does it eat the seed right there or carry it away? Then observe and document the activities of another member of that species, and then another — each for the same time period, perhaps five minutes. Compare your findings.
And sketch. “I know people feel embarrassed to start drawing,” said Dr. Strassmann, who took lessons from a neighbor who was a retired art teacher. “But I think that if you try to just sketch the birds sometimes, you’ll find that you can look at them more carefully than you thought.”
The Bird That Gets the Worm
We’ve all seen the little dance of an American robin foraging on the lawn. It runs a few steps before stopping abruptly, cocking its head and waiting, and then drives its bill into a particular spot to grab an earthworm. How did it pinpoint the worm’s location — from vibrations, sight, scent or sound? The robin homes in on sound, a study by two Canadian scientists confirmed.
As familiar as that worm-hunting behavior is during breeding season, earthworms aren’t the robin’s year-round staple; it also eats lots of fruit. It does eat worms — but maybe more important, regurgitated worms and insects make especially good baby formula.
Anyone who has been challenged by a pair of protective robins when approaching a robin’s nest may be surprised to learn that most contain eggs or chicks not fathered by the on-duty male. The slow birder keeping track of the couple will probably see them share feeding and other parental responsibilities, but that apparent devotion is no indication of fidelity.
“This is perhaps the most famous case of everyone being wrong about birds,” Dr. Strassmann writes.
Most songbirds? Not particularly faithful, it turns out.
A Taste for Ants, Acorns — or Other Birds?
For a better example of constancy, consider our second-largest woodpecker (after the pileated).
“Northern flickers are faithful,” said Dr. Strassmann of the handsome bird with the big voice. She describes its long call as “an unmistakable high-pitched staccato of about seven pulses per second, something like kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick.”
Like robins, flickers are often observed on the ground, hunting for a meal — except that instead of worms, they pursue ants, an abundant and surprisingly calorie-rich food that makes up a majority of their diet.
Another loudmouth, the blue jay, has a particular taste for acorns, which inspired one of Dr. Strassmann’s slow-birder exercises: Go look for acorns beneath an oak in your garden or park. Are there empty caps? Blue jays usually remove the caps before transporting the nuts to a caching site for later consumption.
In moving those acorns, jays, certain mammals and probably the extinct passenger pigeon helped oaks regain their northern range after the glaciers of the last ice age displaced them.
Whether those moves add up to long distances over stretches of history or just the surprise oak seedling in your flower bed, Dr. Strassmann’s blue jay chapter title is as cheeky as the bird itself: “Mighty Oaks from Little Blue Jays Grow.”
A fiercer lesson from the food chain? Seeing a Cooper’s hawk swoop in and take out a songbird at the feeder (or finding the feathery remains of that encounter on the ground below).
Not so long ago, Cooper’s hawks were known as chicken hawks and hunted to near extinction because they preyed on farmers’ flocks. We also nearly did them in with DDT, which kept them from absorbing the calciumin their food, often resulting in eggshells that were too thin to support their young.
But they have rebounded. And along the way, they have created their very own definition of the term feeder bird.
“This is the hawk of our times,” Dr. Strassmann writes, “the one that has made our neighborhoods its home.”
The Diversity of White-Throated Sparrows
Common does not mean boring — or even that a bird is fully understood. Science keeps learning, too.
Take the white-throated sparrows. Along with juncos, they define winter under our feeders, Dr. Strassmann said. About half have tan eyebrows; the rest have white ones, most clearly visible in spring and summer. This is not an indication of gender, as John James Audubon indicated in one of his artworks, or of age, a later misconception.
Each is a distinct form within the species — two genetic morphs because of a chromosomal inversion — and possesses different behavioral characteristics. Individuals with white head stripes are more dominant; those with tan ones, better nurturers.
It gets stranger: White-browed individuals can successfully mate only with tan-browed ones of the opposite sex, and vice versa. So it’s as if there are four genders out there — two versions of each.
Ever heard the high, thin whistle of a flock of cedar waxwings arriving as if from nowhere, precisely as the serviceberries (Amelanchier) are ripening?
“Cedar waxwings are like thoughts that arise unbidden in meditation,” Dr. Strassmann writes.
But how does the waxwing, among the most frugivorous of birds, know the crop is ready?
As the Zen master instructed his students: “Attention! Attention!” That’s good advice for the slow birder, too.
Apparently the waxwings need no such reminder.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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