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 April 09, 2020
Now's a great time to become a backyard naturalist

 Millions of people who aren't frontline workers in the COVID-19 pandemic are adjusting to a new routine that means staying home --- or close to it. Many are seeking solace outside.

Nature is good for our health. And during stressful times, it can be a lifeline.

"I've become convinced that even in the background --- green space, biodiversity, birdsong --- access to nature is crucial for good population health," Lucy Jones, author of the new book Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, told Huck Magazine. "And it's not a luxury, an add-on or a frill: It's central to our humanity and our sanity."

You don't need to flock to dangerously overcrowded national parks to do this. Experts say you can find nature where you are already --- whether that's your backyard, a window box, or whatever sliver of wild is within reach. For many people, including kids, that may begin with learning what kind of nonhuman neighbors they have.

If you're not sure where to start, try birds.

"Since we share our community with birds wherever we are, I think it's a great way to think about being grounded and connected right now," says John Rowden, director of Audubon's Plants for Birds program, which supports planting native flora. "If you're out for a walk, it's an opportunity to begin to listen to what life is in your neighborhood."

And fortunately, you may not even need to leave your house.

"Backyard birding by putting out feeders is a lot of people's entrée into the birding world," says Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. Birds are easier to spot when they sit still to eat. (Just make sure you know what to safely feed them and how to keep the feeder clean.)

You can simply delight in their presence or go further and learn which species they are. There are lots of apps that can help you identify birds and birdsong, including one from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that can match your photos with species and another from Audubon that lets you track what you've seen and share it with friends.

Birding in the days of quarantine doesn't have to be an entirely solitary pursuit.

And now's an especially good time to get into birds, since the spring migration in North America is underway --- or, in the northern areas, will be starting soon.

Migration is a bonus for those who lives in cities, where biodiversity is usually lower than in rural areas.

"Many cities can have huge waves of migrants and really high diversity," says Jones. "Parks with flowering trees and ornamentals attract a lot of insects and get huge pulses of migrants, particularly warblers."

Watch for Yourself --- and for Science

As important as it is to connect with nature on a personal level, you can also be a part of something bigger by recording what you're seeing and sharing that information with scientists who track bird migration over time. Your data could help them to better understand how factors like climate change, habitat loss and pesticides may be affecting bird populations and movements.

"Cornell University [uses that information] to build maps that show how birds are moving across our landscape in real time," says Jones. "You can see a wave of tanagers coming through."

Audubon has used volunteer data to build climate maps showing what kind of habitat birds prefer, how that may have shifted, and whether birds will have the habitat they need in the future as the climate changes, she says.

Birding may help give people a reprieve from the day's stress, but birds can also tell us a lot about the places around us.

Diseases passed between migratory waterfowl can provide a warning about contaminants in water. Or a lack of insect-eating birds could indicate a loss of insects from things like pesticides and insecticides, Jones says.

"We see that with flycatchers not showing up in some areas, and we think it may be attributed to loss of a food source they need," she says. "They tell us a lot about the health of the environment because of what they eat."

Changes are afoot. A 2019 study found that the population of North America's birds has dropped 30% since 1970 --- a loss of nearly 3 billion birds.

Learning about birds can translate into learning to protect birds, says Rowden. And it can provide an opportunity to learn more about other parts of our natural world, too --- like native plants.

"As people are mandated or encouraged to stay home, there are lots of plants that can support birds that can be grown from seeds --- even in window boxes if you don't have a yard," says Rowden.

Finding more than just birds? Another app called iNaturalist, a joint project of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, can help you identify and track just about any plant or animal you see around you --- and share that information with scientists and other users.

Ready? Some Tips to Get Started

If you want to see more birds and other wildlife, try going outside around dawn or dusk. Or change your perspective --- get down low to see what's crawling, hopping, or slithering on the ground. There's a lot more to see than birds, after all.

And record what you see over time. That's particularly important right now: As our routines change, how's wildlife in our communities responding?

Stay quiet, walk slowly, or better yet, try sitting still for a bit. That may take some practice.

Connecting with nature can make these difficult days more bearable --- even, at times, beautiful.

This is an opportunity to appreciate what you've got in your backyard, says Jones.

"I discovered there's an oak titmouse nesting on my back patio," she says. "If I wasn't working from home every day, I wouldn't know that and I'd be going to some far-off location to look for birds and not know I had something cool five feet from my back door."