Learning about Birds:
thoughts from a new birder
by Eva Lapp, Communications and Development Graduate Fellow
header photo: eastern phoebe at Cedar Crest, Jaime Sweany
Here at Sycamore Land Trust, every staff member has a deep and abiding passion for continued learning about wildlife conservation. As the newest member of the team, I don’t come from an environmental background but I have been so excited to learn from others and gain a better understanding of the intricacies of conservation and the tender balance of relationships within the natural world. For me, this started with gaining a broader knowledge of birds and how Sycamore works to protect habitats that depend on these critical creatures!
My birding adventures began as I suspect many first-time adult birders’ have: I sat down on my back deck determined to identify a new bird all on my own. I saw several that I already knew: cardinals, blue jays, robins, pigeons, sparrows… and then I saw it! It was a sleek bird, black feathers but with a delicate shimmering effect whenever it moved, appearing brown in one moment and then iridescent silvery grey in the next. It had a slender yellow beak and was poking its way through the grass near my compost pile. After observing it through my binoculars, I whipped out my birding book, estimating size, coloration, and beak shape. I was delighted to discover this bird was a European starling. I did a quick skim of the description which read:
“these congregations create much noise, foul the area, and have proved difficult to drive away…[they] compete with native species for nest cavities and food.”
All the seasoned birders out there are probably chuckling at me. I have since observed that starlings are indeed loud, aggressive, and everywhere. Yet, I still think there is something fascinating about starlings, despite their pesky behaviors! Maybe not the most exciting of birds, but I was pretty pleased with myself for correctly identifying one on my own.
Before this “star(t)ling” realization, I first started identifying birds during the long winter months with the help of Susan Haislip Daleke, Sycamore’s Administrative Director. I expressed an interest in learning about birds as one way of engaging with Sycamore’s work to preserve natural ecosystems. Susan began pointing out individual species outside the Sycamore office windows, providing me with names and unique characteristics to look for. I grabbed a notebook and started jotting down these notes and names, creating my bird list for the Sycamore office.
Before these sessions with Susan, I had never been good at identifying beyond the basic species. My first significant bird memory is when I was assigned to the “Cardinals” class (as opposed to the “Blue jays”) in preschool. For many of my midwestern peers, cardinals, blue jays, and robins are some of the only birds that have managed to secure a spot in our fleeting attention for birds and wildlife! It was only in recent years that I started learning about birds like the pileated woodpecker and sandhill cranes and it has only been in recent months that I have been able to identify my first northern flicker, prothonotary warbler, and my personal favorite, the sweet and musical Carolina wren.
With the recent months of working from home, my partner Sam and I set up bird feeders and a bird bath in our yard to continue encouraging birds to visit our property. This simple addition has made a big difference in the number of species we see on a daily basis! My current list includes around 35 different birds that I can identify by sight – making me much more attentive to the wildlife around me.
One of the most influential people in my path to birding has been my mother-in-law, Greta, who is an avid Kansas birder known for stopping in the middle of walks to peer into the trees or craning her head to look out the car window and identify a bird flying overhead. She remains passionate and dedicated to her birding, despite the interruptions of family members who offer to help with the identification process by providing names such as, “red-bubbling warbler, yellow-breasted tit-hatch, musky-crested pecker, or silver-bellied strueselfinch.” Joking aside, a year or so ago, Greta expressed her grief at the thought that people just don’t know birds anymore, making humans less connected and less aware of the intricate work of birds in sustaining habitats around the world.
Despite my concern for climate change and environmental awareness, I admit to not paying much attention to the impact of birds on ecosystem health, and vice versa. In the article “Decline of the North American avifauna,” published in Science magazine the authors of a 2019 study found that bird populations have dropped by nearly 3 billion since 1970, representing a 29% overall decline. Specifically in Indiana, the red-headed woodpecker faces continued population declines with the loss of forest habitats and dead trees necessary for nesting. Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve is a particularly great habitat for these beautiful birds. Similarly, bobolink populations continue to decline with the loss of meadows and grasslands. While they have made their return to Sycamore’s Columbia Mine Preserve, we continue to work with the USFWS to restore prairie habitat there. These and other migratory species depend on habitat corridors in order to access these different habitats for different seasons. Sycamore’s work to protect and restore habitat is critical to strengthening our ecosystems, not just for birds but for all of us (see our member newsletter, The Twig, for more).
red-headed woodpeckers enjoying feeders in Bloomington
In my exploration of these intricate relationships, I am also aware that my experience as a white person learning to birdwatch (or to explore the outdoors in general) is very different than the experiences of people from other racial backgrounds. From May 31 through June 5 of this year, stemming from threats made by a white woman on a black man who was bird-watching in Central Park, a group of Black professionals in the STEM field launched a campaign named “Black Birders Week.” Through this campaign, Black environmentalists and nature enthusiasts took to social media to celebrate their passions and acknowledge their experiences with birding and other outdoor activities.
In addition to learning about birds yourself, I recommend reading articles about and from Black Birders Week. In the same way that environmental education is a life-long process, understanding the complexities and manifestations of identity in our communities is a life-long process for each of us. Challenge your assumptions. If you’re white, acknowledge your privilege. And finally, expand your capacity for listening to peoples’ experiences and creating space so that everyone can study, explore, and participate in nature’s abundance.
As a child, I wasn’t one to ask questions and maintain curiosity if I thought it would expose my lack of knowledge in a particular area. As an adult, I have a newfound appreciation for asking questions. If you are a new birder, aspiring birder, or have never thought about birds at all, I would encourage you to start asking questions. The spring migration season has come to an end, so while we don’t have the same abundance of species as a few weeks ago, there are always many birds to enjoy! Find a friend, coworker, or family member and start asking about birds.
Start noticing. Download an app (I highly recommend the Merlin Bird ID app, from The Cornell Lab). Get a field guide, like the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Invite birds to your yard by providing water and food. And finally, as the sandhill cranes continue to teach me, just listen and remain patient. Sometimes just listening can be as beautiful as seeing.