Terry Rich and Patricia Gander Rich, husband-and-wife birding enthusiasts from Boise, Idaho, shared this story on social distancing. Patricia’s mother, Phyllis Gander, is from East Grand Forks, Minn.
Remember when we had never heard the term, “social distancing?” Who knew the good old days weren’t so very far in the past?
It turns out a lot of us have practiced social distancing for a long time. We’re called introverts. But that’s another story. Under the current definition, according to Johns Hopkins University, “Social distancing is a public health practice that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people.”
By now, we’ve probably all figured out how to do social distancing. I’ve been surprised to realize how many social activities I have in my life now that they’re all gone. These include going out to eat, field trips with Audubon, teaching classes at the local nature center, taking classes at the university, going to parties, seeing live bands, seeing my grandkids, seeing my kids and visiting my favorite brewery. Heck, I now even miss going to the grocery store. Who ever thought of that as a social activity?
Birding, the act of going outside to find and identify birds, is the perfect socially distanced activity. In some ways, birding has always been best done alone. Most birds are sensitive to our movements and the noise we make. When you’re alone, you’re almost guaranteed to see more birds, see them for longer and see them more closely.
When birding alone, the bonus is you’re also quieter. Unless you talk to yourself (and we might all be doing more of that if this keeps up), you will be walking quietly through the neighborhood, on the trail, through the park or across the countryside. Traffic has all but vanished in many places, and the quiet is stunning. And even if you’re with your partner, you’ve probably run out of things to talk about by now. It’ll be a nice quiet walk either way.
Birding is also perfect for social distancing because it gets you out of the house and into the fresh air. Fresh air is probably good for the body. I know it’s good for the soul. If you go out more than you did before, however much that is, you also have opportunities to take those paths not taken. Why take the same trail around the lake? More importantly, why hurry home to a house that smells like Lysol?
You can also parlay online shopping into birding. Have you already purchased all the hand sanitizer, toilet paper and rice you can use over the next 50 years? How about buying some birding stuff?
You can’t imagine how many bird books are out there. My favorite guide for identification is the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” Other great guides come from David Sibley and Roger Tory Peterson. There are endless other books about birds that aren’t about identification but may be just what you need right now. How about “A Parrot Without a Name?” Great story and apropos in this time of distancing.
Did you have to postpone a trip to another state or country? I did. I was headed to India until I wasn’t. Order a book on the birds of that place, whether it’s Missouri or India, and study up for when you actually get to take that trip. Studying birds is better than watching endless reruns of TV shows that weren’t that good in the first place. Once you arrive at your new destination, you can wander down the trail with confidence.
How about birding clothes? You could just wear something from your closet, but what fun is that? Research has shown birds don’t like bright colors and move away from people dressed in bright yellow, white and red. How about a lovely tan shirt, tan pants, a tan vest and tan boots? Spice it up with a tan hat. Which brings up another book, “Good Birders Don’t Wear White.”
There must be 100 kinds of camo out there. Stick with the subdued color combinations. Forget hunter orange. Deer are color blind. Birds aren’t. Some birds can even see colors we can’t, such as ultraviolet. Leave your UV bling with your stash of bottled water. I know you might feel underdressed, but, hey, the plan is to be alone.
Binoculars are essential tools for most birders. But don’t buy them online unless you are buying the very best and you know what you’re doing. Less expensive binoculars should be held and looked through before you buy. Why risk a headache by looking through bad lenses?
If you like to draw, observe birds and try to draw them. The human body is supposed to be the most difficult thing to draw. But based on a lot of bird art I’ve seen, birds are no picnic. Getting their postures just right is apparently pretty tricky. But you’ll be good at it.
Finally, I’ll give you two more things to do on your phone while you’re enjoying the quiet time. You should leave your phone in your pocket, but you know you won’t. So, let’s make it useful. The first is Merlin, a free app that helps you identify birds. It asks you five simple questions: Where did you see the bird? When did you see it? What size was it? What were the main colors (up to three)? And finally, what was it doing? The app will then show you pictures of birds and you can decide if Merlin figured it out.
The second app is another free one that I use almost every day: eBird, which was created as a global database for storing bird sighting data. It’s a way to simply enter a list of birds you’ve seen in some place. It’s been a spectacular success. I especially enjoy submitting a bird list from some spot where no one else has ever been. Birders tend to go to many of the same places – you know, where the birds are – but birds are everywhere on earth except in the deep ocean. There are plenty of places where no birder has been, and that might start with your yard and your neighborhood.
eBird does not ask you to be an expert. eBird asks you to do the best you can. If you submit something outlandish, say a greater flamingo from the local park, you will get a very polite email from the eBird checkers saying essentially, “You are a wonderful human being, you are a credit to America, we love you very much, but … about your flamingo. …” Believe me, I know.
Sports fans who are missing the competition, box scores and stats can compete on eBird. There are a lot of lists where you can try to be No. 1 – most lists submitted by year, state and country; most species seen by year, state and country; most bird photos submitted; most bird songs recorded, and so on. It will take a while to get to the top of any of these lists, but who knows how long this social distancing will go on? And, yes, there is a World Series of Birding you can prepare for.
Even if they turn us loose on each other again pretty soon – and I hope they will – you might grow to like a little social distance in your new tan outfit. You might even be mistaken for an experienced birder. You should practice the birder greeting, “See anything unusual?” Keeping a respectful distance is normal for birders. You’ll like it out there.