Finding Joy in Birds

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

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Updated: April 9, 2021


 

I am a bird lover. Anyone that knows me can vouch for that. I get more excited at seeing a new bird in our yard than a kid at Christmas. Okay, maybe not, but it's close. We have been regularly feeding the birds in our yard for around six years, and each year brings new beautiful feathered friends.


Just this season we've had a nuthatch that visits regularly, red-bellied woodpeckers, chipping sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds. That's not bad at all for as early in the "warm season" as it is here. I love checking migrations and anticipating when our visitors might arrive.


I carve out a chunk of time almost every day to sit on the porch with my camera to watch and photograph the birds. Usually, this is in the late afternoon, once the day's chores have come to an end. Watching them eat, play, bathe, feed their babies, or even fight is soothing to me, and I could listen to their songs all day. I can feel the stress melting away as I watch and listen to the birds.


 

Why is watching birds so great?


Birds are typically carefree creatures. They fly where they want when they want to look for food. Their happy dispositions make them calming to watch and hear. They don't care that the world is turned upside down right now; they will continue to sit on their tree branch perch and sing their little hearts out. It is hard to witness such beauty and not feel calm.


Most birds are great parents. I just love watching them gather food for their babies, flying dutifully back and forth to their nests all day. When the babies are old enough, they bring them to visit our feeders and we are rewarded with a glimpse of the tiny miracles. Babies are clumsy and don't fly well and they aren't always naturally afraid of humans at first. We love watching them up close, without touching or disturbing them, of course.


The pictures below show a mockingbird baby in a nest in our grape vine and one of its parents gathering food to take back to the nest. These photos were actually taken last summer, but those same two birds have returned to that nest this spring to raise another brood.



Even on some of my toughest days, I know I can watch the birds for a while and feel better. It doesn't take long- just a few minutes outside enjoying their activity and I begin to feel more at ease. Since I sit outside each day, the birds have come to trust me as much as a wild animal can. They come up to the feeders and the birdbath that are quite close to the porch. They look at me and seem to say, "I know you won't bother me, so I'm going to hang out here for a bit." It makes me smile every time.


Are there any health benefits to watching birds?


Yes, there absolutely are! To get the best views and pictures of birds, you need to go outside. Simply being outdoors is good for your health, but if you're up walking around to find birds, even better. You're working your cardiovascular and respiratory systems. You're also getting sunlight, which means you're getting vitamin D. Any amount of time spent outdoors is good for the body and soul. And you may be able to find a completely different species of bird in a wooded or wetland area just half an hour from your home than you can in your own yard.


Walking around your neighborhood, local parks or even your own yard to observe birds keeps your muscles, bones, and joints in good shape. This can help reduce pain from things like arthritis or other degenerative conditions. Less pain means you can lead a fuller life. This great article from Birds and Blooms magazine has some excellent information on the health benefits of bird watching. I have chronic back and neck pain but I get relief from moving around. Sitting too long makes me feel worse. More reason to get out there and watch the birds!


The benefits to our health aren't only physical, either. Bird watching has many mental health benefits as well. Simply being outside has been proven to boost your mood and increase brain function. Learning about new things helps the brain stay healthy and can reduce your risk of things like Alzheimer's disease. What could be more fun than learning about birds? There's so much to know; what kind they are, what they eat so you know how to attract them, if and when they migrate, etc.


Studies have also shown that simply listening to birds' songs for fifteen minutes can improve your mood and increase your cognitive abilities. This study showed that schoolchildren in Britain were more attentive in class after listening to birds' songs than the group of children that did not. We often open a window in our living room while the kids are doing their schoolwork because they love to hear the birds singing in the yard.


A female goldfinch and a male house finch on a feeder.
A male house finch and a female gold finch share a feeder.

So, all you need to do to feel better physically and mentally is to watch birds? You can increase brain function and cognitive ability in just fifteen minutes of listening to them? What's not to love about that?! I know I could use all the help I can get!


How do you attract birds?


So, you're convinced that watching birds might be just the new hobby you've been looking for. That's great! Even if you've never hung a single feeder in your yard, I promise you can lure them in. You only really need two things- a bird feeder and some seed. But, there's a lot you can do to make sure you're drawing in as many birds as you can and attracting the species you most want to see.


First, do some research on what kinds of birds you have in your area. Just because it lives in your state doesn't mean it'll be in your area. Some birds prefer swampy areas, or mountains, or farmland. A great way to figure this out is to get a good book or two. I recommend one general bird book, such as The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.* I have this edition, and I love it. It's full of useful information and easy to use. Stokes also offers field guides that are broken down by region and these would likely be more specific to your area.


I also recommend getting another book that is specific to your state, or at least to your region (like the Stokes regional guide I discussed above). I purchased a book simply titled Birds of Alabama * when I first started bird watching and it has helped me a lot. It's a much smaller book and it's divided up by the birds' primary colors. It is great for a quick reference when I see something new in the yard. The iBird Pro app for smartphones is also a great resource. It's one of the only apps I have ever paid for!


Feed for success.


A female downy woodpecker on a suet feeder.
A female downy woodpecker on our suet feeder.

Once you have an idea of what birds are likely to be in your area and which ones you'd most like to see, it's time to get some feeders put up. You'll be much more successful in attracting your desired birds if you buy their preferred feeder and seed type. For instance, woodpeckers eat a lot of suet, so putting up a suet feeder and filling it with woodpecker suet may draw them in.


A quick note about suet- many different birds eat suet! Just because it says "woodpecker suet" on the package does not mean other birds won't eat it. Mockingbirds, chickadees, cardinals, sparrows, finches, red-winged blackbirds, and two species of woodpeckers all regularly visit the suet feeders in our yard. One contains woodpecker suet and the other is filled with a variety of flavors.


We seem to draw in the most birds by feeding black oil sunflower seed. Most of our feeders contain a standard wild birdseed mix or black oil sunflower seed. We also have a feeder for raw peanuts in the shells, which although mostly frequented by squirrels, several birds including blue jays, tufted titmice, and cardinals love. The pictures below are of a young cardinal (left) and a blue jay (right). There were peanuts in that colander, too.



We keep several hummingbird feeders around the yard as well. We see ruby-throated hummingbirds around here from about April through September. If you've never had them visit your yard, you're missing out. These little beauties are as social and entertaining as they are colorful. They will fly up to you, within inches of your face, and hover, just checking things out. We thoroughly enjoy watching them zoom around eating and protecting the feeders.


Hummingbirds also love nectar from many types of flowers. Ours seem to like pineapple sage, butterfly bush, coleus, and herbs like basil and catnip. Many of the same plants you would put in your yard to attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies will also appeal to hummingbirds. Check out my earlier post on pollinator gardens to get some more great tips.



Most bird guides will tell you what a particular species of bird prefers to eat, and that will guide you in buying your seed and feeders. Quite often on a bird feeder, there is a tag that says what type of seed to use in that feeder as well as the species of birds it will attract. This can be a huge help. I recommend trying a few different feeder styles and seeds until you find the combination that works for your birds.


Beyond the seed: other tips to attract feathered friends:


Planting flowers that birds enjoy can help a lot, too. We plan all the flowerbeds in our yard to benefit bees, butterflies, and birds. Last summer we had a volunteer black oil sunflower come up, likely put there by a bird. These beautiful American goldfinches love it and can be seen on it often throughout the day. They also love the zinnias we planted, and I think they're responsible for the destruction of our Gerbera daisies; they're taking the soft, dandelion-like seeds to line their nests.



Just like all other living creatures, birds need a constant source of clean water. Having at least one birdbath can really help draw them in. We have four around our yard in various spots. That way the birds aren't constantly fighting for a drink or a quick bath. Some of the species that seem to like the birdbaths the most include robins, cowbirds, sparrows, finches, and bluebirds.


You can add a birdbath fountain if you'd like since birds love moving water. We had one last summer and it was really neat but it emptied the bath rather quickly. We had to refill the bath about once an hour during the hottest, brightest days and that got old fast. You can also buy what is known as a water wiggler, but they're pricey, usually fifty dollars or more. I have not ever used them, so I'm not sure how well they work. A small pond will draw in birds too!


This family of bluebirds (pictured below) spent quite a while splashing in our birdbath last fall. They are likely a mom, dad, and their offspring. Bluebirds often raise two broods each season, and the first brood is known to stick around and help raise the second. Talk about some helpful siblings!


A family of bluebirds in a birdbath.
Happy bluebirds!

Having a place where birds can seek shelter is a good idea, too. We have many hawks in our neighborhood, and while it's awe-inspiring to see and hear them, the little guys need somewhere safe to go when they come swooping in.


It is really important to keep your feeders and birdbaths clean on a regular basis. Birds can easily spread diseases that can be fatal to them if their feeders and baths get dirty. I like to clean all our feeders and baths with a solution of half white vinegar and half hot water and a scrub brush. I wash our hummingbird feeders in hot, soapy water. Allow everything to dry completely, then refill it and hang it all back out.


If you plan to draw in birds, please keep any cats you might own inside the house. Cats are wonderful pets and we have five, but we don't allow them outside. If that isn't possible buy a cat-safe collar with a bell so the birds at least stand a chance to get away. I often chase off strays and neighbor's cats because I don't want them to harm the birds in my yard.


My last tip is simple; be patient. As I mentioned above, we've been actively attracting birds for over six years, and we still get new species each season. Last year alone we had more species than ever before, and we're on track to top that this spring. You'll likely see several birds during migration times that you wouldn't see any other time. You've got to watch regularly because sometimes these are only in your area for a few days.


Below are some of the birds we saw during migration last spring. At left is a great crested flycatcher and on the right is a rose-breasted grosbeak. These magnificent birds were only here a week, but they sure were fun to watch. I really hope they come through again on their migration this year. I have been watching the yard closely!



Having patience pays off. We have barred owls in our area that we see often at night, but it's always too dark to take pictures. I wished for a long time that I could see one of these beauties during the day, and one day last summer it happened. When I went to the window to investigate why the mockingbirds were so upset, this gorgeous owl was sitting on our porch rail. It flew to a nearby tree and I was able to get some incredible shots. It's the same bird as in the cover picture.


A barred owl.
Isn't he amazing?

Things are beginning to feel a little more "normal" this spring, but people are still spending a lot of time at home these days. What better time than now to take up such a rewarding new hobby?


Do you already watch birds, or will you start? Do you have any bird pictures of your own you can share in the comments? I'd love to see them!


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