A Little Birdie Told Me
by Angie Littlefield
I have known a number of Silver Sagers, particularly ones of retirement age, who have taken up birdwatching as a way to get outside more. In winter of course, this isn’t as easy, especially if, like me, you live in a snowy climate. But you can always set up a birdfeeder next to your house to get the birds to come to you. We have always had a birdfeeder during the winter months, and it is a delight during this often drab time of year to see the flashes of different colors as the birds zip down out to the trees to grab a sunflower seed or two.
Some days it’s quiet around the birdfeeders. I look up at the tall trees to see if I can spot my local Cooper’s hawk who thinks of the feeders as his smorgasbord. I took a picture of him once on my deck peering down as if reviewing Look Who’s Coming to Dinner. I don’t need to scan the skies for Mr. C. Hawk most days because he travels with a loud clamoring of crows around him and that seems to keep his predation to a minimum—at least near us. I discovered in “Birds of a feather mob together” (Science Daily, February 22, 2017) that the loud dive-bombing of the smaller birds amounts to more than chasing away or warning of a predator. Mobbing provides “male birds the chance to show off their physical qualities in order to impress females.” It’s difficult to avoid noting the similarity to human behavior.
The loudest alarm callers in my bird world are the chickadees. In the article, “A Wave of Bird Alarm Calls Can Travel at 100 Miles Per Hour” (Birdnote Podcast, Audubon, July 16, 2018), the author claims that birds listen to the warning system of other birds. I can attest to that. Years ago, when we went out with our two cats (on leashes), there used to be ear-piercing shrieks from the chickadees followed by a general avian uproar in the bushes and trees. The birds have subsequently decided that the sky is not falling when our tired boys shuffle about. Victor and Vinnie are yesterday’s news, unworthy of more than a polite note.
During spring and fall our house is part of the bird migration over nearby Lake Ontario. I notice the flickers first because they are big birds. This fall I had my attention drawn to some new visitors, unfortunately in a sad way. We have bird decals all over our windows, but the migrating birds still fly into the glass when the sun is on a slant near dusk. I found a dead, brown-backed bird with a mottled chest (about the size of a robin) on our deck one night just before dark. I turned to my local bird expert, Dr. Gabriela Ibarguchi* and she identified the bird as a veery, which is a kind of thrush. I gave the veery a burial near the ravine by our house. Then I looked up the species. To my surprise a researcher at Delaware State University had released a study to show that the length of the veery’s breeding season and the number of eggs they produce correlates to how severe the next hurricane season will be. Birds as severe weather predictors? That was cool. No wonder the Weather Channel carried the story! Dr. Christopher Heckscher’s full article on veeries was in Scientific Reports July 2, 2018.
Then sadly, I found a second, headless veery. I knew that there was a second veery as I had seen it approach its dead companion earlier in the day while the corpse was still on the deck. I had also noticed a smaller hawk about, not our regular Mr. C. Hawk. It was a sharp-shinned hawk. I attributed the brutal death of the second Veery to this fellow. I felt that the second veery had stayed around because it missed its companion and was distraught and vulnerable. Dr. Ibarguchi warned me away from this kind of anthropomorphism. Nestlings might travel together, she noted, but apparently birds do not form close emotional bonds and worry in the way I suggested. Well, she had her story, I had mine. I took the second bird, found the burial site of the first, and placed the two veeries together.
There are currently many articles that state that bird watching improves your mental health, especially for those finding themselves frequently house bound due to COVID-19. Apparently, just watching nature for ten to fifteen minutes a day can help relieve feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety. An article from the University of Exeter, “Doses of Neighbourhood Nature: The Benefit for Mental Health of Living with Nature,” stated that people living in neighborhoods with more birds, shrubs, and trees are better able to deal with stress and anxiety (Bioscience, vol. 67, issue 2, February 2017, pp. 147–155). The capper to this way of thinking came from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research in December 2020: “All across Europe, the individual enjoyment of life correlates with the number of surrounding bird species.” In fact, the study’s authors calculated that seeing fourteen additional bird species provided as much satisfaction as earning an additional $150 a month. So I started counting: chickadee, Cooper’s hawk, cardinal, blue jay, common redpoll, gold finch, dark-eyed junco, two colors of nuthatches, three types of woodpecker (downy, hairy, and red-headed), crow, mourning doves. Was it fourteen yet?
Silver Sagers live in cities and apartments as well as in suburban and rural settings. Shrubs, trees, and birds may be further afield for some, but there are definitely birds in your vicinity. Walking to find them is good exercise and good for you. Find out what the little birdies can tell you!
*Dr. Ibarguchi, until recently the Program Manager, Conservation, Pacific Coast Bird Conservation at the San Diego Zoo, is now an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario.
Photo credit by Forest Simon @forest.ms
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.