In the months of March and April, birds appear to become increasingly active. The sounds of Cardinalis cardinalis (Northern Cardinals), with their cheerful whistle and bright red plumage, can be heard all around the neighborhood. Flocks of Poecile atricapillus (Black-capped Chickadees), with their impossibly small bodies and rapid movements, look for a meal of insects. Colaptes auratus (Northern Flickers), large colorful woodpeckers in the area, often drum on the siding or gutters of homes, to amplify their message.
Bird watching is a simple pastime that can be enjoyed from any place that has a patch of trees or a garden with shrubs and wildflowers. Birdwatching does not require any tools, simply one’s powers of observation and some patience. However, a pair of binoculars may allow a viewer to see more details without scaring away the birds. Be sure to practice using binoculars on a faraway object that does not move, before trying to focus on a bird. Birds are notoriously mobile. Try looking in the air for soaring raptors, especially hawks and vultures that circle with thermal air currents and follow the sounds of songbirds to find them tucked away in a tree. The birds you see will depend on the habitat you chose to explore.
Installing a feeder in your yard to attract birds can bring many colorful visitors to your home and provide hours of entertainment. There are many types of bird feeders to choose from. Seeds from Helianthus annuus (Black-oil Sunflower) will attract a wide variety of birds to the feeder. Nyjer (Niger) feeders filled with Guizotia abyssinica (African Yellow Daisy) will attract Spinus tristis (American Goldfinch); male goldfinches will sport their signature yellow coat soon. A suet feeder, which can be made at home, is irresistible to woodpeckers. Even an old bagel or a pinecone smeared with peanut butter and birdseed and securely tied to a tree can be a treat for birds. Young children at the Garden’s programs become absorbed in the task of making pinecone bird feeders and hanging them up on vegetation with twine. If squirrels are common in your yard, you may need special bird feeders that keep them from getting all the seed. Be sure to clean your birdfeeder regularly to keep diseases from spreading amongst visiting birds.
Many birds, such as cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and robins are year round residents of western Pennsylvania. Spring brings another great natural phenomenon: the migrations of thousands of birds traveling back to their breeding territories. Contrary to popular belief, birds do not leave an area in winter due to cold weather, but rather to find more abundant food. These birds return home in spring to breed and need to fuel up along the way. Some of these migrants may stop at a bird feeder for a quick snack before moving on.
If you do not have time to create a bird feeder, look at the various “bird cams” maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can enjoy songbirds in New York state, tropical birds in Panama or a nesting Strix varia (Barred Owl) in Indiana, among others, in real time. The site also has information on hundreds of birds, to help a bird watcher learn about birds, and an app called Merlin, that can identify hundreds of common birds by answering a few simple questions on size, shape, color and habitat. All these tools can help anyone become a more proficient birder. Happy bird watching.