Kathy Ryniak

Kathy Ryniak secures two of her feeders in her backyard on a windy day in Boswell, PA.,Friday, Apr.3, 2020. She has always fed birds intermittently, but became more interested in birds last autumn.

People confined to their homes due to the COVID-19 outbreak are finding creative ways to work, socialize, and entertain themselves – all from a safe distance. For those feeling as though their wings have been clipped by stay-at-home orders, the simple act of watching those that are flying freely just outside their windows can offer some solace.

“Birding” is a fun and educational experience that offers a special kind of stress relief, whether luring the feathered friends to a backyard feeder or taking a stroll with a pair of binoculars. Margaret Higbee, of Creekside, who’s a member of the Todd Bird Club based in Indiana, explains how bird watching can help folks cope with the feeling of being cooped up. Her advice is to hang a feeder of sunflower seeds or suet and, “sit there and watch. 

“Something’s bound to come to it.”

She adds that birding offers a unique experience, and “something to connect with nature instead of just sitting in the house and staring at the TV.”

She suggests simply walking nearby just to see what’s out there.

“Go out and look. A pair of binoculars helps too,” Higbee said. “Birds are very quick and will fly away before you get focused on them.”

Higbee, who’s been birding since childhood, and serves as editor of the club’s newsletter, said their spring meetings and outings have all been canceled until further notice, but that hasn’t stopped her and husband Roger from enjoying birds. The couple monitor breeding bird surveying routes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service near their home. At dawn, they drive and stop every half-mile on each of their eight 25-mile routes for three minutes, watch and listen carefully, then write down everything they see and hear. There are 50 stops.

For those who aren’t quite as dedicated, Higbee shares several great spots to bird watch in the Cambria, Indiana, and Armstrong Counties region that the club’s interests serve. 

Great birding opportunities are to be had at state parks such as Yellow Creek, Keystone and Prince Gallitzin. Indiana County’s Blue Spruce Park, as well as the Ghost Town Trail are among her favorites. Although state park facilities are not open, the trails and portable restrooms are.

“Walk the trails!” she said.

For those less mobile, Higbee says that simply sitting still near a feeder can be just as fun. She’s not alone in her suggestion, as the National Audubon Society claims that 40% of Americans feed birds. 

She does, however, suggest cleaning bird feeders once per week with a mixture of vinegar and water to kill the germs. Defecation can become mixed with food and cause contagious conditions such as conjunctivitis – an inflammation of the eye, especially in finches.

“You’ll see a bird that’s confused and it can’t figure out where it’s going, or where it wants to land – because it can’t see,” Higbee said. “It has picked it up at somebody’s feeder in all likelihood.”

Laura Jackson of Everett concurs.

“When you have a concentrated number of birds, it’s easier for them to pass diseases. It’s kind of the same idea as the COVID virus,” Jackson said. “If you don’t keep your feeders clean and put in fresh feed, they can get sick from moldy feed. So it’s more of a bacterial problem and mold.”

So, is feeding birds a good idea?

“We all agree that it’s healthy for people,” Jackson said.  “Studies show that if it’s done right it’s not unhealthy for birds.”

Jackson, who taught science for 22 years at Bedford Area High School, and five more at the district’s elementary school environmental center, has been passionately involved with birds for 65 years. She grew up on a farm with parents who enjoyed birds and encouraged their children to enjoy them as well. 

“Birds are our most beautiful animals,” she said. “Because of all the gorgeous colors and different shapes and styles. And they’re active. Unlike mammals and reptiles, which are more sedentary. They’re very entertaining.”

Jackson’s heartfelt interest in birds is obvious judging by her current list of positions, for which she would need an impressive stack of business cards: Conservation Chair for the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology; President of Save Our Allegheny Ridges; Vice President of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society; Secretary of the Bedford County Bird and Nature Club; Treasurer of the Woodland Owners of the Southern Alleghenies; and Steering Committee Member, Center for Private Forests at Penn State University

“Sometimes I think we spend more money on bird food than our own groceries, because our birds have to have the best,” Jackson quipped.

A veteran of running multiple backyard feeders, Jackson offers plenty of tips for beginner birders.

“The No. 1 food for birds is sunflower seeds because they’re really high in fat, and birds use a lot of energy,” Jackson noted. 

She specifically recommends sunflower hearts (shelled sunflower seeds) for hanging feeders. Cracked corn is good, too, and she warns that some manufacturers include white and red millet in foods.

She says that type of food attracts species such as gold finches, chickadees and downy woodpeckers, but recommends squirrel-proof hanging feeders available at stores such as Duncraft.com, which also offers feed and birdhouses. Some feeders can be nearly $100, but she says people can get started cheaper by using a faux feeder, made from a mesh material.

“We do put food on the ground on a flat rock, and that of course, attracts birds such as towhees, sparrows, and mourning doves,” Jackson said of the more economical option. “Of course the squirrels eat it too. Some people tell me that they enjoy watching the squirrels more than the birds.”

Another option to keep food off the groud is using a platform feeder. 

Jackson stresses the importance of feeder location, especially for people who want to see birds just outside their window.

“There’s a downside to putting them close to your window, and that means if a predator shows up or the lighting changes, they’re going to fly into your window.”

She uses netting over her windows to protect birds that happen to fly into them.

“You want to have a feeder close to a tree or a shrub,” Jackson suggests. “Birds don’t like to fly across open areas, and they want some place to go if a predator does show up. Something they can hide in for security.”

Jackson keeps a daily journal of birds, and suggests beginner birders do the same.

“It’s something people can do by simply watching out their window. And you never know what’s going to show up,” Jackson said.

A relatively new citizen-scientist project called e-Bird.org, where birders can set up a free account and enter daily sightings with a cell phone, is something Jackson hopes will gain momentum. The site keeps records for individual birders so they don’t have to organize their own. And scientists will use the data to track migrations.

“It’s really powerful data, because there are literally millions of people using it all over the world,” Jackson said.

It’s also very helpful as a teaching website where people can learn about birds.

With so many species fluttering about, and not staying motionless long enough for a good look, bird identification can be a challenge. So can finding the right bird books to use. Cataloging birds has existed for centuries, pre-dating the crudest forms of photography. John James Audubon’s combined passion of birds and drawing led to the first bird identification books. Audubon relocated to eastern Pennsylvania from France at age 18 in 1803, the same year that Meriwether Lewis was packing his slates, pencils, ink powder and blank journals to record his journey into the U.S. interior with the Corps of Discovery. Both men sketched birds they had never seen before in lands completely foreign to them.

Audubon’s collection would swell to become a four-volume published assemblage of 435 life-sized watercolors (burnished with cork to add a realistic touch to feathers) called “The Birds of America.” Surprisingly, Jackson admits that she still favors drawings over photos.

“For many years people used Peterson’s (field guide) as the go-to book, and it’s still excellent,” Jackson said.

But “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America” is her primary choice, as it uses drawings instead of photos.

“A lot of times a photograph doesn’t show the key features,” Jackson said.

Different angles of photos won’t disclose key features like a drawing intended specifically for that.

An exception, she said, are the new bird identification books by Richard Crossley, which feature multiple photos of one species, offering many angles and plumages of mature and immature males and females.

Jackson also uses “National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America,” but warns that somebody just starting in birding can be just terribly overwhelmed. She advises novices to acquire the “Birds of Pennsylvania” by Stan Tekiela, which is an affordable paperback field guide that uses excellent photos. For the crowd that prefers to shun paper products, she recommends checking out Merlin, a free cell phone app offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as well as Journey North, for migration information.

April and May are exceptional months to begin birdwatching, states Jackson.

“This time of year is really exciting as we have migrants coming back that we haven’t seen since last summer, and every day is an adventure,” Jackson said. “Spring is my favorite time of year, because you just don’t know what birds are going to show up, or when.”

Whether sitting near a feeder or taking to a local hiking trail, residents in the northeastern states will soon be viewing species that have travelled from great distances. Some coming for a summer stay; others just passing through.

“Some birds come from the northern parts of the South America,” explains Jackson.

The blackpoll warbler is an example.

“It has a tremendous migration,” Jackson said of the bird that flies 1,800 miles of its journey over open ocean waters.

“They love it when the wild cherry trees are blooming because they feed on the insects on the tree’s flowers,” she said.

They will only stay a few weeks to feed and rest up, then continue on to Canada to breed.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, chipping sparrows, whippoorwills and pine warblers will arrive, as will broad-winged hawks and swallows, which have both wintered in Central America. Others will come from greater latitudes. 

Many birds return here for the protein offered by an abundance of caterpillars they catch to feed their young.

“There’s a lot of competition in Central and South America with the birds that stay there year-round,” said Jackson. “There’s a lot more space here and they’re not competing with the birds in the tropics.”

Some birds of the same species can easily fool us.

“A lot of crows that we see in the winter time are from New York,” she said. 

So how do birds return to the same exact places each year?

“Nobody knows for sure,” admits Jackson. “Birds are a lot smarter than we’ve given them credit for.”

She claims there’s magnetism involved and even the position of the stars.

“A lot of them migrate at night, and they actually use the stars,” Jackson noted. 

She explains that what’s further fascinating, is that most likely a bird that departed Pennsylvania for a long journey south did not even survive to be able to fly back.

“There’s a huge mortality among songbirds,” Jackson adds. “But their offspring know enough to come back if they survive.”

Birds use waterways for navigation as well as mountain ridges.

“Ridges are extremely important for bird migration,” Jackson said. “They depend on the thermal lift that occurs over our ridges. They don’t have to flap as much, and save a lot of energy and can just glide for hours.”

Jackson encourages beginner birders to not only become citizen-scientists, but citizen-conservationists.

“Different studies have shown that we lost 3 billion birds. The population of birds is really dropping and we see that in our backyards with certain species,” Jackson said.

She admits some of that can be attributed to global warming, but the core reason is a loss of habitat. She is hopeful that a unique concept will reverse that trend.

Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology (insects) and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, has an idea that if people work at creating good habitat for birds in their own backyards by using plants specifically native to their region, that a yard-to-yard ecosystem can serve as salvation – a sort of interconnected park.

Jackson explains: “We can have a homegrown national park system that everyone can contribute to by doing their own part in their backyard.”

John Rucosky is a photographer for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5055. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRucosky.

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