Hosting a gathering of friends at your home may not be advisable at this time, but getting together with a flock of feathered friends is a great diversion. During the pandemic, birding has become a popular escape with sales for seed suppliers, birdhouse builders and other bird related businesses “through the roof,” according to Audubon Magazine.
Extending an invitation to the bird community is simply a matter of offering a meal. A backyard rich with trees and shrubs is an ideal place to hold the get together, but a patio or rooftop will suffice. Provide a bounty of goodies and birds will gather like eager children. Once the birds become regular guests, you can enjoy hours of entertainment watching the beauties, identifying them and, if you wish, photographing them.
Set the table.
You can attract birds with a single feeder of mixed bird seed, but drawing a large and varied population requires multiple feeders, each offering treats meant to attract certain species. Tubular feeders, fitted with perches too small for large birds, are meant to attract finches and other small birds. This type of feeder can be filled with thistle seed — a favorite of finches — or mixed-seed finch food, which supplements the thistle seed with sunflower chips and millet, and attracts a greater variety of small birds.
A feeder with perches spacious enough for large birds, filled with a wild bird food blend that is rich with nuts, fruit and sunflower seeds, will attract cardinals, blue jays, grackles and other big birds. A cage hung from a tree and containing suet cakes laced with peanuts or fruit is a favorite of woodpeckers, but other species will indulge as well. Red hummingbird feeders and orange Baltimore oriole feeders filled with sugar water will attract these magnificent specimens. Oriole feeders generally include a spike for mounting a section of orange and a cup for grape jelly — a favorite of the pretty black-and-orange birds.
With feeders in place, patience is required. The birds will discover your banquet, but it could take weeks. Sparrows may show up first and other small birds will follow. Soon blue jays, cardinals, grackles and others will arrive. Hummingbirds will stop by in the warmer months.
Once your feeders are established, you’ll see birds you haven’t seen before. Exactly what species you’ll encounter depends on where you are. In Michigan over the summer, an array of feeders attracted Baltimore Orioles, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, warblers and pine siskins. During spring and fall migrations, birds on their way through your area may drop in for a snack.
When your home has become a favorite feeding ground, you can sit back and enjoy the show. A printed field guide, like “The Sibley Guide to Birds” or “The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America” will help you identify your visitors. If you’d rather go digital, the Audubon Bird Guide app is helpful.
Watching birds battle for position at the feeder is entertaining, as is taking note of the way they come and go. Some birds, including sparrows, fly rapidly in a straight line, like miniature missiles, flapping their wings frantically. Others, including finches, flap them intermittently, rising and falling like a roller coaster. Some birds have elaborate dining habits. Nuthatches pluck a seed from the feeder, wedge it in a tree-bark crevice and pound it with their beaks to break it open. In spring, you may see sparrows race back and forth from the feeder to nearby branches, where their young wait to be fed.
Get a closer look.
Observing birds with the naked eye is entertaining, but most birders use binoculars. You can get a good pair for less than $150, or you can spend $3,000 on the best models. Audubon publishes a guide to binoculars that offers choices at every price level. Look for models that provide 8x magnification or more, so a bird will appear at least eight times larger when viewed through them than when viewed with the naked eye.
Or take a picture.
Close-up photos of birds like those you see in National Geographic are stunning, but the equipment needed to achieve those results can be expensive. However, more modest photographic results are pleasing as well and can be achieved inexpensively.
Smartphones with a telephoto lens like the iPhone 11 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy S10+ can record an image that approximates what you see with your naked eye. Other affordable options will provide more magnification. Hammacher Schlemmer offers digital camera binoculars for approximately $200 that can produce 8x images. Sharper Image offers a similar set of binoculars with 12x magnification. Both can be mounted on a tripod and will produce acceptable images, but not the kind of crisp high-resolution photos seen in nature magazines.
If you want to approximate professional quality results you’ll need a high resolution 35 millimeter digital camera and a telephoto lens. Even if you buy used equipment, expect to pay at least $500. But that’s less expensive than even a very modest vacation, and for some it may be a worthwhile entertainment investment that provides many more hours of enjoyment than would a weekend trip to a ski resort.
There are two types of digital cameras marketed as 35 millimeter models. One type has a full-frame sensor. The other type has a smaller sensor, is less expensive and is usually described as an APS-C model. Because the APS-C camera has a smaller sensor, the captured image is proportionately larger. A 400 millimeter lens on most APS-C cameras has approximately the same magnification as a 600 millimeter lens on a full-frame camera. Good quality APS-C cameras with sensors that record more than 15 megapixels of image data can be found used for $300 to $600.
The lens is the most important part of a birding rig, and you can find bargains by shopping around. For telephoto zoom lenses with sufficient focal length to achieve substantial magnification — 400 millimeter or more — you should expect to pay at least $500 for a new lens, but perhaps half that for a used one.
You’ll also need a sturdy tripod and a ball head or gimbal head for bird photography. Gimbal heads are better for birding but more expensive; a smooth-operating ball head is adequate.
When shooting, use an exposure mode that allows you to set the shutter speed while the camera automatically chooses the aperture. For perching birds, a shutter speed of 1/500th-second will usually yield sharp results when using a tripod. To shoot a bird in flight with a hand-held camera, try a shutter speed of 1/2000th.