It’s early May, 5 a.m. I’ve woken into a strange day. My hair is wet, sheets drenched, water pouring from my eyes. My heart fluttering. I think I’m having a panic attack. For the past year, cancer has been roaring through me like a freight train. After that first rush of alarm, I hear singing outside my window. Well-spaced, melodious notes; trills in varying tempos. The music is so sweet, it calms the wild beating of my heart. I am being serenaded by a song sparrow.
Walking the earth has been my daily ritual, my place of faith, of reverence. Now, in this stormy year of life, I am swept up in the timelessness of birds and sky. Especially birdsong. It has been a way back to joy.
I’m not alone. In a 2019 study commissioned by the U.K.’s National Trust, woodland sounds and birdsong were found to be 30-per-cent more calming than a meditation app. Our brains are wired to relax to birdsong. Birdsong means safety. In fact, birds stop singing when there is a threat nearby. I lay back in my bed and listen. In this strangely fragmented hour, sparrow and I have found each other.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
People come to birding for a multitude of reasons. It’s easy to get inspired by birds. They fly overhead and all you must do is look up and out. First, though, something must light the spark.
For some, it was their parents’ irresistible love of the natural world. I asked B.C. author, zoologist, conservationist, and MP, Richard “Dick” Cannings, how he came to birding. “I didn’t really have a choice,” he says. “I was born into a family where we did things together. We were in nature all the time. My dad was a photographer, keeping track of the birds he saw. I fell into it.”
The summer I was born, my parents carried me on walks through rural Ontario; my dad naming the birds he heard. Singing whip-or-will back to the bird that calls its own name. We were soon seven children on an odyssey in the woods. It was an outdoor classroom with games of counting and prizes. On Sunday drives, the destination would be Point Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ont. The park, on a major migratory flyway, is a birders’ hot spot. Imagine seeing 34 different species of warblers in a single day. We never did, but we tried.
These enthusiasms, inspired in childhood, tend to stay with us, and become a passage into nature.
What is Birding?
Birding is the study of birds, their behaviour, environments and identifying birds in their natural habitat. Anyone can be a birder. Though, as I’m learning, it’s a serious pursuit and takes dedication. Many birders keep a life list of all the birds seen in a lifetime. There are about 10,000 species of birds and some birders travel long distances to spot rare ones. My small list has been growing, travelling no further than from Vancouver to Whistler. So, we don’t have to go far.
I walk or cross-country ski at Green Lake in Whistler most days. As I round the corner to the lake, I see dense low shrubs, wetland grasses, coniferous and deciduous trees, spectacular alpine views, and that glimmering aquamarine lake. Even in winter, unless the lake is frozen, I am generally assured of seeing wetland birds—Canada geese, common and hooded mergansers, buffleheads, mallards, American coots, grebes, or Barrow’s goldeneye. A great blue heron fishing or tucked in against the cold wind. There are songbirds, too. Sparrows and warblers. Juncos and barn swallows. A few weeks ago, I saw an eagle and an osprey having a mid-air duel. Birding is about getting outdoors on a regular basis and making it a discipline.
As I walk this morning, I hear the cheep chirrup of a song sparrow. Across the path, the raspy low call of a warbling vireo. I don’t see either one of them, though I can’t help listening. The back-and-forth call is like a duet in an opera, the singers having a conversation. Here on this scorching hot morning at the lake; call and response. Something birds do. It’s music. B.B. King would call with his voice and answer the call with his guitar. Louis Armstrong did the same with his trumpet. The song sparrow and the warbling vireo are singing to each other.
I imagine this. Though I might be wrong. Kenn Kaufman, the renowned birder, author, and field editor for birding guide Audubon, described birdsong as far more complex than my imaginings. Surprisingly, more than half the birds on Earth are songbirds. Unlike our human anatomy, bird sound comes from the syrinx, the bird’s vocal organ. Birds can make a broad range of sound; they can even make two sounds at once.
The ability to make sound is hard-wired, though most birds must learn their song. There are different songs for different situations. Songs are more typical in breeding season, Kaufman says, when the bird is defending its territory. Birdsong is also used to attract a mate. Birds can even mimic sounds they hear in their environment, like a dog barking. Kaufman’s advice—just go out and listen. Birdsong will brighten up your world.
Some skilled birders, like Jessie Barry, one of the leading developers of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology online bird identification tool, Merlin, says she does practically all her birding by listening.
Although I haven’t seen the song sparrow or the warbling vireo, I know they’re nearby, as I’m using the Merlin bird app. The app immediately identifies a bird from sound and I know, without seeing, which birds are close by. A birder friend of mine recently asked, “Isn’t that cheating?”
But the app was developed from tens of thousands of birders and citizen scientists submitting avian audio recordings. Experienced birders may well have ears more accurate than the app. But as a learning birder, I have found it a welcome identification tool.
I’m scanning with my eyes, too, and lucky enough to see a cedar waxwing hopping along the path in front of me. I scramble to write it into my notes.
“I feel a calmness birds can bring to people: and quieted, I sensed here the outlines of the oldest mysteries.”
Author and nature writer Barry Lopez, from his book, Arctic Dreams
Hearing, however, is not seeing. What makes a visual encounter with birds so interesting? As I am learning, it can all start with one bird.
One late winter afternoon, I was cross-country skiing home from Lost Lake. A wind came up and snow began drifting. I skied the final descent, under a brilliant waxing moon, and there, clinging to a branch of a Western hemlock, was the most magnificent plump red bird, at least eight inches in size with a longish tail. I was curious and stopped to take a photo before skiing into the last of the day’s light. I later discovered my bird was a male pine grosbeak.
I like long, meandering walks on paths where I am most likely to see and hear birds. It’s my way of stopping time and taking my mind off my cancer diagnosis. I’ve just read about a new program at the University of Northern Colorado Cancer Rehabilitation Institute called Mindful Birding, which is intended to supplement cancer treatment. The attention to detail necessary for birding stimulates the brain and slows down the body. You can’t help but live in the moment.
This summer, I was gifted birding binoculars and a field guide by my husband, desperate to tip the healing scales in my favour. The vortex binoculars are compact, light, and thus more likely to be brought along on my long walks.
It helps to be an early riser. Birding and I were made for each other. I don my wide brimmed hat, my new binoculars, a scrap of paper, the back of a used envelope—nothing fancy—and head out the door.
First, I see two crows. Then a robin. I’m a little crestfallen. After half an hour, keeping my eyes peeled, I see what looks like swifts or swallows. They move so fast. As they fly low over the pond, I make out the long, forked tail and rounded wing and mark them as barn swallows.
The late nature writer Barry Lopez believed every person has an animal companion. Mine is the great blue heron. I see this graceful blue-grey bird most days if I am unobtrusive and know where to look. Seeing a heron never loses its grip on me. There’s one now, perfectly still on its long, thin legs, gazing into the shallow water along the shoreline, its head lowered, hunting for food. After a short time watching, the heron lifts off into flight, its massive wings outstretched, legs trailing behind. I exhale, drop into my body. I’d like to fly.
Moving from the pond, I take a little used trail where I often hear bird sounds. There’s a spotted towhee rustling in a low thicket. On a smallish shrub I spot a tiny bird with sunlight illuminating its brilliant red head. Is it a house finch or a Cassin’s finch? I wallow in looking. There are two of them. The body is too red for a house finch. The head is small, roundish and the tail is long and notched. Now I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a purple finch?
If the leap from bird watcher to birder seems daunting, it is. I asked longtime Whistler Naturalist and local birding legend, Karl Ricker, the how to question.
“Go with somebody who knows what they’re doing,” he says. “You’ll need a guide, an investment of time—one to three years—and you must make it a regular activity.” In his no-nonsense way, he advises to “get on with it.” Ricker also highlights something I’ve been pondering—birding is good for our brains. “It’s a challenge for the mind. The mind must work to identify the birds.”
Bird Therapy: Birding and mental health
I’m a psychologist and interested in knowing whether birding can contribute to mental health. There is evidence that birding stimulates the brain. Also, it can shift thought patterns and take attention away from painful experiences.
When I wake to sparrows singing outside my bedroom window, the tone is being set for my day. Something like the relaxation response has registered. It feels good.
Ashley Dayer is a social science researcher at Virginia Tech, where she studies influences and behaviours that relate to conservation, including bird conservation. She says there is a variety of opinions for why nature promotes mental well-being. “Theories about people’s attraction to viewing and to being in nature often tie to humans’ long evolutionary history of connection to natural environments,” she says. “In other words, people are attracted to places that were essential to our survival as a species.”
Helen Macdonald author of the best-selling memoir, H is for Hawk, wrote a piece for the New York Times during pandemic lockdown, “The Comfort of Common Creatures.” She described prisoners in captivity during the Second World War who became birders. One prisoner, Peter Conder, went on to become the director of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
“I think doing so brought them comfort,” Macdonald says. “Birds they watched were free and knew nothing of war. But mostly watching the birds was a way of mobilizing attention, to turn it into a means of imagined escape, a way to counter their own sense of captivity, of powerlessness, futility, and despair.”
Cannings, the avid birder and MP, told me a wonderful story about the space birding can fill. When federal politician, Jim Coutts, was diagnosed with cancer, he called Cannings. I don’t know how long I have left. I want to see all the birds I can. And so, Cannings took him birding.
What makes a birder?
No one needs an excuse to go birding. It’s easy, low-tech, social, and just fun. Since the pandemic, birdwatching has surged in popularity. While we were in lockdown, birds were moving freely. A dizzying number of people began using eBird, a web-based birding checklist, a type of crowdsourcing for birds. Through their exhaustive cataloguing, these citizen scientists have also helped bolster broader knowledge of how ecological changes affect bird species.
It begs the question: What is our relationship with the natural world? In 1984, renown naturalist and biologist E.O. Wilson published Biophilia, referring to the love of nature and proposing that not only do people tend to affiliate with other life forms in their environments, but that this affinity likely has a genetic basis.
I ask Canadian author and lifelong birder, Merilyn Simonds, what drew her so passionately to birding.
“I was drawn into nature for the delicious solitude of it, the constant change/reassuring sameness of it. Birds, I think, are just the most visible, most vocal element in the natural world, the welcome to a place we feel inexplicably at home, with no need to speak or explain ourselves. Like the birds, we can just be,” she says.
Simonds’ 2022 book, Women Watching, is an homage to Louise de Kiriline Lawrence (1894-1992), an internationally renowned naturalist, author, and the first Canadian woman elected to the American Ornithologists’ Union. This fall, Simonds will be presenting her book and talking about the birding experience at the Whistler Writers Festival. (Learn more at whistlerwritersfest.com/simonds-merilyn.)
Picture this. You are lying in bed and hear a call like a tin trumpet. High-pitched and nasally. It’s annoying and persistent, like a stone in your shoe. So, you become curious. That’s how Whistler Naturalist, Dea Lloyd, found her spark bird. The red-breasted nuthatch that wouldn’t let her go. Some come to birding in search of a social activity. Whistler Naturalist Kristina Swerhun reveals she got into birding because she was quizzical. “I wanted to know what I was seeing,” she says. “Birding can be social too. Both together are powerful.”
Better stewards of our natural spaces
Lately, I’ve been having a recurring dream. A great blue heron has flown into the darkness of my room, with its loud baritone, shouting, as if leaning on a horn. Flapping its wings, scraping the walls. The way its voice is a cry of distress.
There is something inside of us, innate perhaps, that is drawn to these wild flying beings. But birds are in decline. In particular, the heron’s population is in decline, largely from habitat loss. Their greatest risk is from humans clearing shrubs, bushes, and trees to enhance views or build. But these are nesting habitats. The greatest loss of species in Canada is among shorebirds and grassland birds. Because of their sensitivity to human encroachment, the great blue heron has been placed on B.C.’s Blue List of vulnerable species.
And it is not just the herons. The skies are emptying out. According to a 2019 report in the journal Science, the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 per cent since 1970. “There are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago,” the report reads.
British writer Robert Macfarlane, well known for his books on lost places, landscape and nature, has worked tirelessly to bring vanishing species and voices to the fore. He refers to his work as the dark side of nature writing. Macfarlane’s The Book of Birds, due out this fall, will be a new kind of field guide: A celebration of nearly 70 species of birds whose populations are in steep decline or face risk of extinction.
Birding is not just a lark
This ecological data comes from bird-watching records. From birders. From bird counts.
The Whistler Naturalists Society’s Christmas bird count will be held this year on Dec. 14. Birds will be counted over a 24-hour period by citizen scientists and the data collected is shared with Birds Canada.
The results of annual bird counts are used by conservation biologists and naturalists to assess the population trends and distributions of birds.
The Whistler Naturalists Society have a monthly “bird walk” on the first Saturday of the month year-round. Check out their website: whistlernaturalists.ca. Better yet, become a member.
I love the way birding is growing. This month, Whistler will become the fourth region to be added to the BC Bird Trail, a project aimed at bringing together birders, conservationists, and community to promote birdwatching and education.
What you need to become a birder
In addition to binoculars, you’ll need a bird guide. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America shows you what to look for and has great illustrations. The Sibley Guide to Birds is another good choice, with stunning images. Of course, there are apps like the Audubon Bird Guide, for quick identification in the field.
One day this month, I stopped to talk to a stranger named Sadie, both of us admiring a rare sighting of a peregrine falcon at Jericho Park in Vancouver. “I took a course,” she says. “I really want to learn more. But I can’t afford the equipment.”
I couldn’t help thinking, she was learning. She has her eyes and her ears, her curiosity, and was taking time and paying attention.
This hard thing
Soon it will be winter. There will be swirling patterns of birds murmuring. A great blue heron I have seen before will hunch again over on the edge of icy Green Lake while it’s snowing, its neck tucked in against its chest. There will be bald eagles and osprey. Swallows, woodpeckers, chickadees, kinglets, northern flickers. Steller’s jays shook, shook, shooking at my window, looking for seeds as their food source grows scarce. Song sparrows and pine siskins. Warblers and vireos. Buffleheads, cormorants, and mergansers. Ducks pitching their sounds across the lake like oboes. The thrill of trumpeter swans arriving on their migration path to Alaska.
I am insignificant compared to the bird world. Attention-giving has changed me. We carry each other now, birds and me. It’s nature’s way.
How am I going to do this hard thing facing me? As the writer Anne Lamott said of any tough task—you take it bird by bird.
Mary MacDonald (marymacdonald.ca) is a writer and holds a PhD from University of British Columbia. Her book of short fiction, The Crooked Thing, is available from Caitlin Press and locally at Armchair Books. She sits on the board of the Whistler Writers Society and is curator and moderator for poetry at the Whistler Writers Festival.