It had only been a few weeks of lockdown when my birthday rolled around. But the gift my husband got me did—and still does—feel symbolic of the times: a birdhouse. Taking in the world through our windows, we found a new thrill at spotting the birds in the overgrown trees of our Brooklyn backyard. We propped the sweet little birdhouse on our balcony, filled it with seed and waited for our springtime friends to come say hi.
Of course, the birds never quite flocked to the birdhouse for whatever reason—maybe the feed was wrong or the hole too small for the birds of our region. Since they weren’t coming to us, we invested in a pair of birdwatching binoculars and a National Geographic field guide to the birds of North America. We’d spot couplings of mourning doves, the brightest red cardinal and his demure mate, blue jays swooping through the manmade jungle in a flirtatious dance, sparrows building a nest twig by twig. It became a pastime.
And then, the birds left for the winter, which is really only something we noticed once they showed up again, and we were so delighted to see a cardinal perched on the railing that we paused mid-argument to look at it: “Shhh! Look!”
The birds’ return marked a year into the pandemic. We’d become even more astute at watching the world through our windows. We even spotted a massive hawk, which prompted Google searches like “do hawks eat dogs?” “what size dog is safe from a hawk?” “is any size dog safe from a hawk?” On a walk (yes with my dog), I spied the giant hawk nest on an air conditioning unit of an elementary school. My neighborhood was its own ecosystem.
And apparently, we weren’t the only millennials in the neighborhood relishing in urban nature. A sprinkling of warm early April weather meant one of our first outdoor get-togethers at a friends’ place a few blocks away. Chomping down on burgers on their patio, the sound of the birds chirping was almost too atmospherically lovely to ignore. “We have, like, so many birds in our backyard,” my friend remarked. The statement opened up our household secrets: Both couples had become house-bound birders.
I’d always considered birdwatching—well, honestly, I’m not sure I ever really considered birdwatching at all. It was for old people to dress up like they’re on safari and whistle. But here I was, paging through my field guide to figure out what exactly the bright yellow and black little guy outside my window was. Yes, it’s an activity—something to do—but it’s not just entertaining or busy-bodying; it’s meditative. Though I’ve never forged a strong meditation practice, I know the point is to be present, and what’s more present than looking at what’s right in front of you, fleetingly, pointing at it and confirming “yep, that’s a wren.” It’s grounding, and it’s something new you can share with the person you’ve been stuck inside with for 365+ days. “Oh yeah, that’s a wren all right.”
And the millennial interest in the old-school hobby of our parents expands beyond my inner circle. A quick Google search led me to a 2018 Boston Magazine article on the growing trend among millennials, illustrating how the “low-impact activity that appeals to retired senior citizens with nothing but free time” has had a “millennial makeover” with smartphone apps and Instagram snaps.
Two years later, Conde Naste Traveler covered the evolution of the birdwatching phenomenon in their guide for “How to Birdwatch from Home” published at the onset of the pandemic. “Whatever strange and often bewildering things are going on in human society, it can be a lifeline for us to know that there is another world still spinning on outside it,” writes Joe Harkness. Author of Bird Therapy, Harkness believes in the profound mental health benefits of birdwatching from his own life-altering experience. “Birds are the most easily accessible form of wildlife, so with the limited time we now have to exercise, what better way to boost wellbeing, to learn and explore, than to start taking notice of the bird life around you?”
So, it’s no wonder Google Trends is showing an unprecedented spike in “birdwatching binoculars” this first week of May 2021. Do you need expensive equipment to get your own hobby started? Per Harkness, not really. If you’re hanging out in a small space, like your own garden, you simply need your eyes and ears, a field guide and place to keep track of the birds you spot (if you want). If you’re trying to see birds at a greater distance or flying overhead, a pair of binoculars can’t hurt. As for a field guide, I’ve been using the National Geographic book. (For Britain, Harkness recommends the Collins field guide.)
If you’re like me, you’ve been changed by this past year, forced to confront the hand you’ve been dealt (or made for yourself), and often, no matter what you’re working through, that hand includes some birds outside your window. They show up whether you’re having a good day or a bad one. They swoop through the telephone wires, rain or shine. They make homes out of the things we throw away. They, along with the round of car alarms that inevitably goes off at 5 a.m., wake us up with song. And once in a while, if you look in the distance, past your computer screen, to-do list and dishes in the sink, you can lose yourself to a starling murmuration spiraling in coordinated helixes in the sky.