We’re So Cooped Up We’ve All Become Bird Watchers
Pigeons on window boxes, ducks in yards, and hummingbirds on porches provide strange solace for quarantined humans.
In the first episode of The Sopranos, mob capo Tony Soprano tries to explain to his therapist, among many other things, why he’s grown so attached to a group of ducks that invaded his backyard. For weeks, Tony has watched the water fowl flop around in his swimming pool—and when they fly away, he grows depressed and suffers a panic attack. (He also dreams at one point about the birds flying off with his penis, but that’s neither here nor there right now.) Eventually it becomes clear: The birds have come to mean more to Tony than the sum of their feathered parts. They represent his family—and perhaps more importantly, his fear of losing them.
I thought about that moment a lot last week as my old college roommate, Tampa-based real estate agent Philippa Main, 28, described how she’d become so obsessed with a duck that recently made its nest in her front yard. Main first noticed an egg in mid-March, as concern about the outbreak first began to spread in Florida. Given that we used to live together near a retention pond, I feel it’s pertinent to note that Main has always been pretty wild about ducks. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, Main said, this duck’s presence has become something special—an oddly soothing, and at times exciting, distraction.
At first, Main wasn’t actually sure if the eggs in her yard had come from a duck. “I posted a photo on Facebook and people said it may have been a snake,” she said. “Then I panicked.” Soon enough, however, Main saw the bird itself—after it had laid its third or fourth egg. Now, the nest is up to at least nine. “She started burying some into the mulch to help keep them warm,” Main said. “I’ll let it be a surprise.”
Since quarantine started, my Facebook feed has been covered with birds. At least three of my friends and former colleagues have begun posting regular updates about the feathered critters that have nested in their yards, and it seems they’re far from alone. I spoke with people across the country—and one in India—who have found a little solace in observing the creatures nesting near their homes.
Charles George, 54, a UX designer who lives in Brooklyn, first noticed a pigeon nesting in his window box planter in late January. When she laid her first egg, George said, “I just thought, ‘Oh my god, crazy lady. You’re never going to be able to hatch babies in January.’” Sure enough, one of the eggs didn’t make it—“but the other one hatched, and she did it! She raised the baby.” The pigeon later laid two more eggs after that, both of which hatched. (One of those baby birds unfortunately died.)
George grew up in rural Ontario, where his family had pigeons in their barn. “I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for them,” he said, recalling a class trip years ago when he’d bought a pigeon to save it from a market that used to sell them for food. At this point, however, George admits he’s become “totally obsessed” with his pigeons—posting regular updates to Instagram with humorous captions like “Charles George reporting [from] Action Bird News.” He even recently canceled a Verizon appointment to have his WiFi fixed out of fear that the technician would disrupt the birds.
“I want to move them into the bathroom,” George said, “but my husband says no. I want to prop the window open so they can just come and go as they please, and he’s like, ‘No.’ Which is understandable—I mean, I'm kind of joking—but there are days when it’s pouring rain and you look out and they’re just sitting there getting wet and you just think, ‘Aw, poor things!’ You forget that they’re actually wild animals and they’re afraid of you.”
Not everyone gets along with their avian neighbors on the first meeting. Sophie Vershbow, 30, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, notes that it wasn’t until she was quarantined that she was able to make inroads with the pigeons that built their nest outside her frosted bathroom window. Vershbow is Assistant Director of Social Media for a book publisher, and for months before quarantine, she and the birds had not been very friendly.
“Whenever I walked into the bathroom at night, if I turned on the light, I would hear some very angry cooing,” Vershbow said of the birds’ arrival. “They were making it very clear to me that my presence was not welcome.”
Vershbow had already stopped turning her bathroom light on at night for fear of disturbing the birds—which, she noted, have nonetheless not chipped in at all on rent. But when quarantine began, trapping Vershbow inside her apartment to watch Central Park become a makeshift hospital, suddenly the birds weren’t so bad. “I got too freaked out to leave for a while,” Vershbow said. “Those birds were my only interaction.”
After three weeks in quarantine, Vershbow said, “Those coos got a little bit less ominous and a little bit more like, ‘We are bonding.’ And that is one of many reasons why I moved in with my parents.” (Vershbow’s parents live nearby in the city.)
Now that she’s left, however, Vershbow feels a pang of guilt. “I feel like I abandoned them! I hope they’re OK,” she said—although, she notes, “I’m sure they’re thrilled I'm gone. There’s no more woman showering outside their little nook, scaring them with a bluetooth speaker.”
Vishal Ojha, 25, who lives in Delhi and works as a real estate consultant, is usually too busy with work to go out onto his family’s balconies. But in late March, after India had already begun its quarantine, he noticed three eggs had appeared—two on one balcony, and one on another. Usually, Ojha’s family would shoo birds away from the balcony to keep the mess to a minimum, but now things are different.
“I was very surprised and excited to see them,” Ojha said. At first, “My parents didn’t like it, but I somehow tried to convince them that it’s better we have some pigeons around us when there’s no humans.”
Although Ojha has tried to befriend the birds they have not reciprocated; every time he tries to get near or beckon them with sounds, they fly away. He’s stopped to avoid scaring the birds, but leaves out bowls of water for them. Two of the eggs have already hatched, and the mother is taking care of them. One egg remains.
Ojha has continued cleaning the balcony to avoid getting scolded by his mother. But unlike before, when he would shoo the birds away, “It’s like, I am cleaning it for myself and for them also.”
It’s not hard to fathom why people who’ve been cooped up for weeks might become a little obsessed with the birds on their window ledges and in their yards. This spring novelty is, after all, a welcome distraction from existential dread. But it seems the birds also provide something else: an opportunity to connect with friends and family over something wholesome. Ojha lives with his parents and little brother, and says the birds have become a popular topic of family conversation: “We all keep talking about the pigeons—‘How are they doing today?’—on a daily basis.”
Main, like George, posts regular “Egg Updates” on social media—and maintains a Zoom feed of the duck during all of her video calls. (“That is for both personal and professional Zoom meetings, I would like to clarify.”) Erica Calderone, 35, who lives in Mamaroneck and owns a consulting company, has sent photos of a mourning dove nesting in her weeping cherry tree to friends, family, and neighbors. And Jeff Haltiner, 70, who lives in Berkeley, California, noted that his entire neighborhood email tree has been discussing a pair of white-tailed kites that have built a nest in his backyard. Haltiner worked for 40 years as a consulting hydrologist engaged in ecological restoration.
Vanessa Brosnan, 36, a pre-school teacher of 17 years who lost her job due to the virus, recently found a hummingbird nesting on her front porch—the kind of thing she said she and her husband likely would not have noticed pre-quarantine, as they raise their 9-month-old daughter. At least one of the hummingbird’s eggs have now hatched, she noted, and she’s documented the whole thing on Instagram. In an email, she wrote, “It… hurts my heart knowing that if I was still teaching, this is something I would have shared with the children in my class and would have built an entire emergent curriculum around this tiny baby for us to explore and learn from.”
Calderone, meanwhile, has two children—a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. After spotting the mourning dove in her front yard, Calderone recalls she sent a photo of the bird to an avian-loving aunt—who confirmed the species, made the image her phone background, and named the bird “Hope.” Calderone’s daughter has become fascinated with the dove, whose egg-laying has become a kind of on-site science lesson for the family.
“We have that book, Are You My Mother?, which talks about a nesting bird and a bird comes out of an egg,” Calderone said. “So she's like, ‘I wonder when the bird will come out of the egg! Will it be looking for its mother?’”
Jeff Haltiner and his wife, meanwhile, are avid backpackers and amateur bird-watchers. During quarantine, they’ve found themselves outside for hours watching the dozens of birds who visit their yard—which is outfitted with a bird feeder, a bird bath, and a nesting house. The white-tailed kites, however, are a rarity.
“It’s fun reading up on them to kind of know what they're doing,” Haltiner said—noting that some of the older birding resources one can find, dating back to the 1800s, tend to anthropomorphize birds to the social understandings of the time. “They’re like, 'Well, you know, the husband will try to help build the nest but the woman doesn’t usually let him do much… Whatever he puts in there she moves it around and his job is really to provide food, he should just get out of the kitchen,’” Haltiner said with a laugh.
“To watch birds, you have to slow down, pay attention, and be quiet,” Haltiner added. “I think that’s one of the things I started to really like, because we tend to be planners and busy and zooming around a lot… I laugh, because normally I would be kind of pushing myself to get some more things done, and one of the fun things about this is you can just get lost.”
But make no mistake. As relaxing as birding can be, the drama can, at times, match the insanity of Real Housewives. There are ups, downs, and sometimes even mid-air scuffles.
For instance: George noted that recently, another pigeon—whom he’s dubbed the “interloper”—showed up and began attacking the baby pigeon in his window box. “I was freaking out,” he said. “I was like ‘Joey, there’s a pigeon here I don’t recognize attacking the baby! Oh my God!’ So I scared it away and I’ve kept scaring it away.” He even called the Audubon Society to try to figure out what was going on.
Calderone fretted about her mourning dove during a recent storm. “Branches were coming down all over our yard, and I was worried about her,” she recalled. But when Calderone looked out at the tree in her front yard, there the bird was, sitting still on the nest with a calm look on her face, protecting the egg. “I kind of got a little emotional and was like, ‘That’s kind of all of us,’” Calderone said, noting that she’s been putting on a brave face for her children.
“Here I am, trying to protect them,” Calderone said of her son and daughter. “They don’t even know what's going on… and here was the bird, doing the same for her little egg.”
Haltiner has landed front-row seats to incredible aerial battles between some local crows and the more solitary kites. The crows, he said, “are constantly buzzing the nests and harassing them and trying to provoke [the kites]. And they’ll actually land on a branch right next to them and kind of sidle over and engage them and then they get up in the air and do some of this fighting.”
“You kind of get personally caught up in it a little,” Haltiner said. “You’re like, ‘OK leave, you damn crows! Leave these poor kites alone. Let them raise their kids… Quit being such a bully!’”
“You’re really hoping that everything is successful, and the babies are born, and that they survive and they learn to fly and then everything moves on,” Haltiner said. “So we’re pretty invested emotionally right now. It’s like watching a TV series or something.”
And for those who prefer a good “Man Versus Nature” story, look no further than Main’s front yard—where her duck scared the pants off an unfortunate UPS delivery driver.
Main had forgotten she’d ordered a package with a long wait time, and although she was able to signal to the delivery driver not to come closer, he did not seem to get the message. That’s when all hell broke loose.
“He keeps walking, and this duck flies right up at him,” Main said. Both the delivery man and the duck were inside her house’s covered porch area by that point, and there was no escape. The delivery man, still committed to delivering the package, attempted to evade the duck flying around him. Then, she flew into his face. Ducks, she noted, can raise their feathers into a sort of mohawk to make themselves appear larger and more frightening. And at that moment, “Needless to say… she was full mohawk.”
Main worried the duck would flee—but instead, “she only angrily stalked around in the front yard for five minutes.” Main has since placed a warning sign in her lawn to alert future delivery drivers to a safer place to leave packages and avoid the duck’s wrath.
As amusing as the birds can be, several people I spoke with voiced concern about what they’d do once their feathered friends leave. As Brosnan wrote of her hummingbird and its babies, “I’m so personally invested in this little family, that I know once the time comes for the baby to leave, I will be a mess about it.” Still, she wrote, she’s “so thankful to have witnessed this little miracle unfold right outside our door.”
And as George noted, even once a bird takes flight, the connection remains. “When I’m out walking the dog and I see a whole bunch of pigeons on the sidewalk, it’s so corny, but you do think, ‘Oh I wonder if the baby’s in there,’” he said. “You kind of feel like it’s family or something. Which is sort of silly—but you do think about it.”