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How Bird-Watching Saved My Sanity

Doomscrolling getting you down? Put down the phone and look to the skies

Illustration of a cardinal breaking a cell phone screen with its beak
Jason Holley

I used to be a news junkie. Then my habit turned toxic. Every newsfeed and Twitter feed seemed full of war, disasters and poisonous politics.

Long walks helped. Before long I was watching birds, a pastime that led one macho friend to ask, “What’s the point of tracking a bird if you’re not going to shoot it?”

The point? To find a better sort of tweet.

At first, I barely knew a hawk from a handsaw, but soon I was tracking cardinals (the males bright red, brownish females less flashy), blue jays (tricksters who mimic a hawk’s cry to scare other birds away from food) and crows, strutting and cackling like vintage Jack Nicholson.

And it turns out I’m not a bird-watcher after all. I’m a birder. 

“Birders are more hard-core,” says Ted Floyd, editor of the American Birding Association’s Birding magazine. Many birders compile lists of the different species they see. A team from Princeton, New Jersey, won this year’s World Series of Birding by spotting 205 species in 24 hours.

Not all of us are that hard-core. I’m with Floyd, who says feathered commoners like robins are interesting enough.

“Watch a robin for a few minutes — how it sings, moves, behaves — and you can tell it’s thinking,” he says. “They’re basically reptiles, but until recently nobody studied the reptile parts of their brains, where the action is!”

Robert “Birding Bob” DeCandido, who leads birding tours of Central Park, loves New York’s peregrine falcons — the fastest creatures on earth, spearing prey at 240 miles an hour — but he’s just as crazy about starlings, who somehow know to pick carpenter ants from logs and crush them under their wings. 

“The ants are full of formic acid, which kills parasitic mites in the starlings’ feathers,” he says.

Last week I got within 20 yards of an eagle, a raptor with the wingspan of Giannis Antetokounmpo. I took a falconry class and learned that falcons and hawks can see ultraviolet light — to their eyes, the urine trail of a mouse or squirrel glows — though this fact is disputed

I learned that crows sometimes nab walnuts, drop them on streets and wait for cars to crush the shells. Seagulls stamp their feet on beach sand to imitate rainfall, tricking worms into coming to the surface. Woodpeckers have shock-absorbing skulls that may guide the design of future football helmets.

Birding Bob and other pros shared some tips for fledgling birders:

• Avoid bright clothes; earth tones are your camo.

• Keep the sun at your back. That makes it easier for you to see birds and harder for them to see you.

• You can lure small birds by pishing: Saying “pish-pish” or making kissing sounds can bring them winging your way.

• Want a diverse lineup at a backyard bird feeder? Try sunflower seeds. If you’re partial to hummingbirds, make sure you don’t turn them into junk-food junkies. When my friend Eric upped the sugar in his recipe, “they started diving at my head, defending the feeder like it was their personal drug stash.”

I don’t pish, but at several spots on my daily walk, I’ll make a clicking noise with my tongue. The birds on my route hear human voices all the time, plus cars, lawn mowers and leaf blowers, but only one human clicker. They know I bring a pocketful of peanuts. There’s a pair of cardinals — Stan the Man and Claudia, I call them — who come a little closer every day, and a jay who has learned to pick a peanut off the toe of my shoe.

Sometimes I shoot them — with my iPhone — but that’s not why I bird. I do it to enjoy their company, to admire them and root for them.