Birding Is Having Its Moment During the Pandemic
The often-overlooked hobby has seen an explosion of interest, but also faced a reckoning of its own.
I was planning to be in Colombia in April, hiking new birding trails in the Andes mountains. We were all supposed to be traveling somewhere, of course, but the pandemic saw fit to end that. Now I quarantine at home. I can’t go to the birds, but the birds—over two-dozen species—still see fit to visit me. This month, I watched Carolina wrens dutifully feed and fully fledge—the stage between hatching and flying—a nest of five in my window box. (Wrens are adorably small, feisty, and noisy birds that usually mate for life. The males make several nests and the female chooses which one she wants. When their brood is hatched, the couple takes turns, finding food and carrying away the chicks’ poop sacks. This goes on non-stop from sunrise to sunset until the babies fledge and it’s awe inspiring.)
These moments with feathered friends, who know nothing of the coronavirus, are my points of sanity—and I’m not alone. Birding not only became the new wildlife safari for many restless Americans trapped by the pandemic, it has also faced its own reckoning on issues that cover Black Lives Matter signs across American cities. At a time of explosive growth, the largely white-faced, cisgender activity has had to wrestle with its history of excluding of Black and LGBTQ+ birders.
What’s significant about the pandemic for birding? The coronavirus lockdowns came at an opportune moment for birding—Spring migration.
“Spring migration is special for birders,” Chad Witko, outreach biologist for the National Audubon Society’s Migratory Bird Initiative told The Daily Beast. “Hundreds of species that spend a majority of their lives on their wintering grounds are returning to their breeding grounds, creating opportunities to catch glimpses or overhear songs that are out of sight and earshot most of the year.”
In other words, in the spring, as people were getting outdoors nearer to home, they discovered these newly arriving birds in their backyards and parks—and interest in birding grew. When you have nowhere to go, it is hard to miss those colorful palettes, diverse songs, or creative nests just outside your window.
To underscore that reality with data, one only needs to look to the most popular birding apps out there.
Merlin, an app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology that aids in identification, was downloaded 150,000 times in April, which the lab says was the “largest monthly increase in the app’s 6 year history.” Similarly, their eBird checklist app that tracks birds based on user reports, received 50,000 bird checklists a day, with a sizable increase in photo submissions (48 percent) and in audio recordings (80 percent) from citizen scientists. Lists for backyard birding was up 900 percent and the annual Global Big Day for bird submissions saw a jump in participation by 50 percent.
Cornell’s apps were not an outlier.
Installs for the Audubon Society’s Bird Guide app, for example, increased by more than 100 percent from February to March this year and 37 percent from March to April, said Chandler Lennon, the organization’s communications manager for the Atlantic Flyway. Usage of the app also increased by 38 percent from February to March and by 69 percent from March to April.
So for all of the horror of the pandemic, the one clearly unexpected benefit is that of raising the awareness and appreciation of birds nearest our homes.
In my backyard alone, for example, I’ve successfully lured Baltimore orioles to a feeder, spent time with everything from ruby-throated hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, house finches, goldfinches, catbirds and cardinals to red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, cowbirds, chickadees, and a variety of sparrows. I’ve watched robins and blue jays fledge. I’ve spotted red-winged blackbirds, indigo buntings, tree swallows, and eastern bluebirds in my local park, and observed kingfishers, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks, and blue herons hunt.
This rising attention to birding, however, has a wider cultural significance.
As a novice birder, I’ve noticed a larger shift occurring in birding, especially at the Audubon Society. In the world of birding, it is not uncommon to see different organizations take different tactics to protect birds—for example, Cornell’s use of citizen science.
In the past, I watched Audubon lean into the pragmatic, like promoting new birding trails, where travel and birding become mutually beneficial. Their annual birding photography awards, for example, get professional, amateur, and young photographers out into the wild, capturing astonishing birding moments. For those stranded at home this year, they developed the “I Saw A Bird: Audubon’s Spring Migration Show,” a variety show online about birds that brings in celebrities and scientists. This got the #ISawABird hashtag trending, with birding photographers and fledgling birders posting photos to Twitter.
By mid-spring, however, it became clear—in a strongly organic way—that birding and social justice issues, especially that connected to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights, were not disconnected.
On May 25, Christian Cooper, a Black birder, set out to Central Park’s Ramble for bird watching. There he met Amy Cooper (no relation) walking with her unleashed dog. When Mr. Cooper asked her (a white woman) to leash her dog—as required in the Ramble—she became irate, called 911, and falsely claimed that “an African-American man is threatening my life.” The incident was recorded, went viral, and led to a backlash against Ms. Cooper.
Christian Cooper’s story came to highlight the many arenas where being Black becomes a liability, even for the simple pleasure of birding. Black birders have long noted that the world of birding has its own exclusionary and racist history to address.
Within days of the Cooper story, the informal Twitter group @BlackAFinSTEM—which showcases “Black STEM Unity”—organized the first #BlackBirdersWeek to raise awareness of that racism.
“We didn’t pick our moment, but we did rise to the occasion,” Tykee James, an organizer of #BlackBirdersWeek and government affairs coordinator for the National Audubon Society, told The Daily Beast. Audubon itself wasn’t involved in the creation of #BlackBirdersWeek, but they immediately saw the need to elevate it online.
Black birders regularly find themselves subjected to questioning from authorities when birding in parks. Many identify “no-go zones,” specific locations and even entire states, that are too dangerous for bird watching due to the risks of being a lone Black individual in a white space. White birders, however, generally do not face barriers like this to birdwatching.
“That should be the reality for everyone who wants to watch birds—unfortunately, it is not,” said James. The birding community and organizations need a wider inclusivity, he added, noting that “No-go spaces” are intersectional issues. “Even in a Black space, it might not be queer friendly,” said James, and “the value of inclusivity needs to be intersectional,” noting that spaces could be unsafe because of black, gender, or sexual identities.
To promote this intersectionality in birding, the Audubon Society organized the Let’s Go Birding Together (LGBT) program in 2016, which was held on June 23 in Pride Month, in which LGBTQ+ birders can meet each other in a judgment free zone.
“I’ve definitely received icy glares and overheard muffled comments when I’m birding in more rural, conservative areas,” said queer birder Gregoriah Hartman, the network action manager for the National Audubon Society. Living in D.C., Hartman frequently goes birding with James, because they’ve found that the safe places for Black and queer birders are often the same.
“When I lived in Denver,” said Hartman, “I always birded with other queer or trans birders and we formed our own group rather than go out with a group of older, white folks that we didn’t know. You just don’t want to be stuck a mile into your hike and find out that someone thinks non-binary people are seeking attention, or have to explain why you use gender neutral pronouns when you’re trying to look for a tiny bushtit in the pine trees.”
The pandemic, however, meant the need for more virtual events during Pride Month, leading Audubon California to reach out for the first time to a drag queen—L Y L E (Lyle Mackston)—to produce a makeup tutorial, in which L Y L E transformed into a colorful painted bunting.
Audubon’s LGBT program arrived at a timely moment. Outside of Pride Month, there were other reasons LGBTQ+ rights were in the news.
Despite the Trump administration’s many attempts to erase Obama era progress for LGBTQ+ rights, a week before Let’s Go Birding Together, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ+ employees.
As I watch a half-dozen birds decorated in every color of the rainbow and eating together at the same feeder—usually with a motley collection of squirrels, bunnies, and chipmunks picking up their leftovers below—I can see why birds resonate with diverse groups of birders.
And here’s the thing: while birds provide moments of peace for more Americans this year and can help spotlight society’s many inequities, the birds themselves are also facing their own struggle for survival in 2020.
The Trump administration has long been rolling back environmental regulations, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The MBTA has forced industries to implement policies that protect birds and has been used to go after oil and gas industries that engage in unethical and environmentally unsafe practices. The National Environmental Policy Act, a 50-year old act signed by Richard Nixon, is also facing its own rollbacks from the administration, to make way for pipelines and the president’s long-promised wall.
The disassembling of these policies seeks to benefit the businesses, but they also threaten birds that are already at risk due to climate change.
So birds need us to protect them, and we need birds to remind us of our shared humanity. This year has—in part due to the pandemic—opened the door for that conversation in unexpected ways.
“Birds are gay, birds are queer, and birds are polyamorous!” Gregoriah Hartman tells me. “We should be cautious about anthropomorphizing, but it’s very endearing to me to be able to look at the natural world and see such clear examples of other species living their lives openly and being accepted and welcomed by their peers.”