Bird your backyard
If you’re looking for a new hobby while social distancing, or have always been curious about what that small-red-breasted-bird-with-a-short-orange-beak-and-brown-tail in your oak tree is, now may be the time to try your eye at birding.
Birding is a hobby that requires minimal equipment or monetary investment to get started. It is also a great activity for kids and a way to engage the entire family in a group activity.
The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Birding with Extension program and Facebook page can help you start identifying your neighborhood’s feathered residents.
Birding with Extension
“The goal of Birding with Extension is to connect people to the land through the experience of birding, thus fostering an interest in conservation of natural resources,” said Maureen Frank, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist, Uvalde. “Our programs include learning to bird for both youth and adults, backyard bird habitat management and birding experiences.”
Frank and Emily Grant, AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources agent for Val Verde County, are holding weekly birding talks on the Birding with Extension Facebook page. Their existing video collection, Backyard Birding 101, can also be found there.
You can start to bird by dedicating 5-15 minutes a day. Go outside in your own backyard if possible, or simply look through a window.
“If you already have binoculars at home, that makes birding easier to do if you’re stuck at home,” explained Grant. “But even without binoculars, most Texans can easily spot several species in their own yard or around their neighborhood.”
Frank said a field guide is a great resource to start with. “I like to have a physical field guide in my hand, which you can order online or download to a tablet or smart phone.”
A traditional field guide will often show and explain more variations amongst the same type of birds, as well as differences between males and females, than just looking at pictures, she said.
What to look for
If you think in descriptive terms about birds, like if something has a thick bill with a squat body, that will help you use a guide to then narrow down what you saw, Frank explained.
Where, when and what the bird was doing may also be helpful in identifying it, said Frank.
“A bird’s shape, size and color can all help you determine what you are looking at,” Grant said. “If you can’t snap a picture of the bird, try keeping a notebook handy and jot down descriptive terms that will aid you in trying to determine the type later on.”
Online birding resources
Frank encouraged new birders to take advantage of an array of available birding apps for smartphones, such as eBird, Merlin Bird ID and the Audubon Bird Guide.
“There are several free ones, and some can even help you search by using a photo of a bird you’ve taken,” Frank said.
If you live in a more urban area or don’t have access to the outdoors, Grant suggested websites with live bird camera feeds as an alternative.
“April 13-15 on Birding with Extension’s Facebook page, Dr. Frank and I will have activities for virtual birding, and we’ll share some of our favorite sites with cameras on bird boxes, nests or habitats,” Grant said.
Introducing children to birding
A good way to train your eye to be an effective birder is to look at a picture of a bird and then try to describe it.
“This works especially well with children,” Frank said. “Look up a bird online like the painted bunting and then ask your kids to describe it to you or draw it. Talk about what colors they see and where, how long its legs are, how long its tail is, what shape its beak is.”
Another fun family birding activity is to play the Bird Bingo game developed by Birding with Extension and Texas Master Naturalists.
“Whether you compete against each other or work as a team, this is a fun way to start birding and to make kids aware of some of the more common birds that are around us here in Texas,” Grant said.
Making birds feel at home
More birds will be attracted to your backyard if you provide an easy food source to them.
AgriLife Extension has an online video to help create a bird feeder from commonly recycled household items. The Junior Master Gardeners program also has an easy online guide to create a pine cone and peanut butter bird feeder, although note that peanut butter and suet feeders should not be used during warm weather.
A birdhouse and birdbath are two additional items you can easily create at home to attract birds to an area.
Birding for beginners and beyond
Birding with Extension’s marquee event, Birding the Border, was canceled this year due to COVID-19, but the scheduled keynote speakers will be offering their expertise in an online webinar April 16-17. Registration is $10, and the money will benefit youth birding projects.
“We have programs for beginners and birders of all abilities led by professional guides throughout the year,” said Frank. “Even after just watching us on Facebook or attending the online seminar, beginners would be ready to join us in person in Del Rio for Birding the Border in 2021. Our guides are great at answering questions and giving those new to birding guidance out in the field.”