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How to Kick-Start Your Bird-Watching Hobby From Home

July 16, 2020
by Laura Smith
Oliver James headshot

Look up! While you were stirring up a tweetstorm on your phone, real (non)human drama was unfolding among the original tweeters—that’s right, the birds. Cooper’s hawks are in hot pursuit of pigeons through the Berkeley canopy. A consortium of bushtits gather on the sidewalk, and a black phoebe lands pensively on your fence post. 

An often cited refrain of sheltering-in-place is that in addition to the hardships, this time has also offered a cherished opportunity to slow down, notice, and reconnect with life at home. In the absence of our louder pastimes, people are turning to the simpler pleasures of yore; baking bread, gardening, and birding. 

Oliver James, an MPP candidate at the Energy Resource Group and the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, notes that birding offset much more than arcane scientific knowledge. These animals are a gateway to the natural world. Notice the American robins hopping through the foliage and you might begin to wonder what that foliage is and how it relies on the plants and animals around it. 

I first encountered Oliver James in Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley after buying his book, Birds of Berkeley, published in 2018, which is a brief and gorgeously illustrated field guide to a couple dozen noteworthy birds that can be found in these parts. And he would know, he grew up here. James is young—29—and seeking to dust the cobwebs off the field guide genre, and indeed birding itself, which can seem stuffy, overly technical, and a bit boring. His writing, in contrast, is accessible, spunky, and modern. “Imagine Steve McQueen in a ‘68 Mustang,” James writes of the Cooper’s hawk, “and you, the pigeon, in a rental car with poor turning radius. You’re fleeing down San Pablo Avenue, weaving through traffic. It’s all over in a matter of seconds.”

California spoke with James to ask him how we can use this time to better connect with the birds—and the worlds—right in our own backyards. 

When you hear birders talk about how they got into birding, often they talk about a “hook bird,” meaning the bird that got them into bird watching. Do you have a hook bird?

Oliver James: I totally know that phenomenon that you’re talking about, and I think it’s real, having worked with young birders and new birders of all ages. It only takes one magical encounter with a bird to really get someone hooked. 

For me, I started birding pretty young—like four or five. I was always an animal kid, but I took a hiatus when I was in elementary school or middle school, and I remember I was visiting my grandparents in Southern California, and we were out at a picnic lunch and my grandpa, who’s just a very curious, observant person pointed out this bird that was flying around near us. And almost in a kind of braggadocious way, he was like, “do you know what kind of bird that is? That’s a black phoebe.” And I was like, “Oh wait, I’m supposed to be the person who’s the expert here.” And I think that bird sort of relit the fire. 

Western meadowlark drawing
James illustrates all the images in his book including this drawing of a Western meadowlark.

People are sheltering-in-place, and they may not be able to go on extravagant adventures, but they can still see a lot of amazing birds right around their homes. How would you recommend they get started?

OJ: The first step is just noticing. Teaching people about birds in the field, especially in urban or suburban areas, there’s surprise at the diversity that exists so close to home in the bird world. We conceptualize biodiversity to be elsewhere, like somewhere you need a plane ticket to get to. And when you start looking for it, the world can kind of crack open, like the curtain is being pulled back. It’s been there all along, but it’s just worrying along undetected. 

In terms of ways to practice noticing and sharpening, that sense can be assisted by taking notes as you’re observing. People really believe in the practice of field sketching, even just in a very cursory way, what you’re observing, as you’re observing it—noticing color, noticing body proportion, noticing behavior.

Are there any tools you recommend?

OJ: If it’s something that you feel like is a worthy investment, purchasing some good optics, like a decent pair of binoculars can really bring the world of birds a lot closer to you. There’s a lot that you can see with the naked eye and that can be assisted through feeding birds by installing a bird feeder at your window. But a lot of times birds are really shy and cryptic and their world is kind of operating at a different scale. So binoculars really can help.

Do you use any apps to identify birds?

OJ: What’s really exciting about the hobby and the pursuit of natural history today is that we are equipped with more and more powerful and efficient tools. Back in the day, you’d have to lug big books out into the field. Oftentimes, they were incomplete and maybe didn’t have depictions of birds and every single plumage that they appear in at all times of year, so that might be misleading in identification. But now we have apps that can show you a bird, and every single costume it wears and all vocalizations are a button click away. 

There is an online checklist database called eBird that’s hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Oh! They also host the bird ID app, Merlin. I love using that. 

OJ: Yeah. It’s a really cool platform. It’s a citizen science driven database. So what that means is that lay-people birders who are out in the field around the world can submit checklists of the birds that they’re observing, and then those go into a database that then can be queried by other people. And so you can search in your area to see what other people are seeing. 

Burrowing owl drawing
“Birds find beauty in the margins,” James writes of the burrowing owl, pictured here.

Is there a particular field guide you’d recommend? There’s your own, of course.

OJ: The household standard is the Sibley Guide. That comes in different versions. There’s the Sibley Guide to the Birds of North America, which is all of the birds across our continent, which actually can be pretty daunting and maybe just a glut of information—more than a beginning birder really needs. That field guide is also offered as A Field Guide to the Western United States, which covers California in the Bay Area. My book, Birds of Berkeley, is a great entry point too because it’s only about 25 bird species. It’s a little bit more literary. Oftentimes, field guides will show a bird in different images so that you can actually really see each field mark. My book doesn’t do that. 

Your book is different from other field guides in a lot of other ways too. First of all, your drawings are works of art—and you drew them yourself. But also, the writing is funny. Are you intentionally trying to take on the more staid, serious field guide?

OJ: One of the critiques I have of traditional field guides, despite being incredibly useful as a tool, is that they oftentimes sort of deaden the personality and the animation of birds. And I think it kind of runs the risk of making this—for lack of a better word—a sort of dehumanizing exercise. These birds really do have distinct personalities. So I’m trying to facilitate a connection between the natural world and the reader. 

Are you one of those birders who keeps checklists of the birds you want to see and have seen?

OJ: Birding is sometimes described as hunting without a gun or without the bloodshed. I don’t list as ardently as I did [when I was younger]. But it’s also nice to just keep track of your own history in a way, like “Oh, yeah, remember, this day 10 years ago when I was here.” Or, “this day marks the arrival of this species.” So that could be really satisfying on a personal level.

Is there anything else you wish people knew about birding?

OJ: What I might offer is that oftentimes, I think of birding as a vessel to observing and connecting with the natural world and one’s local ecology. Birds are beautiful and amazing and there’s so much to understand about their behavior and biology. And it can be really fun to see how many species you can find in your yard or in your county. But when you go out and you’re spending a lot of time closely observing the natural world, you end up seeing way more than you bargained for. And I think that whether it’s birds or it’s mushrooms or it’’s flowers or a sort of other wild flora or fauna, it’s just really satisfying to understand how all the pieces of the world fit together. 

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