One of the vignettes in Alan Zweig’s beautiful documentary 15 Reasons to Live features a Toronto musician who falls madly, head over heels in love with birds. He goes from disinterested to virtually obsessed with his bird brethren. In the doc, Jack Breakfast explains his obsession with birds saying something like:
“If the birds only came once a year, on bird day everyone would stop what they’re doing and just marvel at the birds.”
It’s true. Because they’re so ubiquitous, we take the birds that surround us for granted.
Turns out, winter is the ideal time to start your love affair with birds. Here’s what Kazeem Kuteyi, lead organizer of Flock Together Toronto, an urban birding collective for people of colour, and Andrés Jiménez Urban Program Coordinator at Birds Canada advise for kicking off your winter bird adventures–no khakis required.
Don’t let ‘birding’ be intimidating
The first bit of advice Andrés is adamant about is to avoid labels. ‘Birder’ is cumbersome terminology that seems to be generally reserved for seniors in khakis with binoculars strung around their necks. And, frankly, it ups the intimidation factor and inhibits curiosity about birdlife.
Photo credit: Flock Together, Kazeem Kuteyi
Drop the moniker and instead, think of birds as curious outdoor companions you can become more familiar with overtime.
Kazeem has very similar advice based on the intimidation factor that comes with the ‘birder’ handle. Pre COVID, you’d find Kazeem DJing and promoting music events to 20-somethings who see him as an insider on Toronto’s club scene. He was the furthest thing from a birder.
When COVID hit and the clubs closed, Kazeem pursued his latent curiosity about birds and invited his community for a walk to check out the birds in Toronto’s High Park. He embraced the fact that he and his community didn’t look like typical birders:
“The idea is to take up space in a place where a lot of us have been conditioned to not feel comfortable in or feel like we belonged,” he said.
Flock Together embraced a decidedly ‘freestyle’ approach to birding. The members of the collective didn’t know a single bird name and had ten-dollar binoculars that they shared among themselves. They didn’t take any particular path to watch the birds. Rather, they meandered to their hearts’ content. Most of the 15 or so people who gathered in High Park that day just used their eyes and ears to experience the birds. Most importantly, Kazeem and his community ditched perceived notions of what a birder was to embrace their version of birding.
As Kazeem said in a recent interview: “We did talk about birds, but also about music, art, life. The same conversation that might happen in a loud club or over dinner. This way you get to be in this beautiful, peaceful setting. And it’s free.”
Andrés echoes this sentiment. He firmly believes that when you first try connecting with birds, your goal should simply be to become more attentive to your surroundings and let your curiosity guide you. You may end up photographing birds or sketching them, you may just listen to their sounds and not bother investing in binoculars until later. The point is to ditch the idea that you need to be an expert and instead just build a relationship with the birds that are around you. If that leads you to a deeper interest in birding, then so be it.
Winter Birding: A Traveling Exhibit
Andrés Jiménez, Urban Program Coordinator at Birds Canada tells me:
“We should stop calling the people who go south for the winter ‘snowbirds.’ The real snowbirds are the birds from the Arctic who usually hang out with the polar bears and come to Southern Canada once a year for warmer habitat and easier access to food.”
In other words, every winter, Canadians can get a fascinating view of birds that are just temporary visitors to Canada. Imagine, you can participate in a wondrous travelling exhibit of birds that descend from the Boreal like snow buntings, redpolls, snowy owls, and rough-legged hawks, just by stepping out your door.
Photo credit: Flock Together, Kazeem Keyeyi
Kazeem says he was looking forward to hosting Flock Together events this winter because “I honestly hate winter” and birding gave him a reason to go outside. Flock Together events were postponed due to COVID, but Kazeem’s point stands. Having a bird focus can take the dread out of winter walks.
Also, Kazeem says, winter birding is a particularly tranquil way to enjoy the quiet buffer that snow provides. It allows you to slow down and be more attuned to your surroundings on a wintery walk.
And, there’s an added benefit because the birds are more visible without all the leaves on the trees.
Building Bird Reciprocity
Andrés encourages new birders to take the opportunity to build a reciprocal relationship with birds.
Install a small bird feeder outdoors and use this as a start to a long term relationship with birds. Observing birds can be a gateway to looking out for their protection and well-being. Once you fall for birds you’re much less likely to let your cat roam free and more likely to put bird decals on your windows to prevent birds from crashing into them or turn the lights off during the night to avoid collisions. You may decide to plant native species in your backyard to provide food and habitat for winter bird-visitors that travel all the way from their arctic homes for a brief visit to your town.
Bird Canada’s Great Backyard Bird Count taking place February 12-14 and is an ideal way for you to demonstrate your reciprocal relationship with birds. All you need to do is watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days. Then, enter your data on the ebird.ca. Additionally, you can get a bird guide tailored for your neighbourhood using Birds Canada’s ID Tool. You can use Merlin Bird App to get a field guide to the birds of the region with photos, sounds, and helpful ID text for bird species likely to land in your backyard. Then, add your bird sitings to a super-cool live map and see the little flashes of light that show the findings of other backyard bird counters. Your local citizen science adds up to more knowledge about birds, globally. How cool is that?
Build-in Bird Animation
Community park groups have created brilliant safe, socially distanced birding activities that can be replicated by your group.
Photo credit: JLS Photography, Male Redpoll
For example, this year, through a TD Park People Grant, Still Moon Arts Society invited Vancouverites to tune into nature and create a virtual symphony of bird songs.
The creative chorus was a way for Vancouverites to celebrate birds.
“Bird watching and listening are valuable on your own because you can do it anytime anyplace and it helps you connect to our other-than-human neighbours with whom we share the habitat,” says Carmen Rosen, Artistic Director of Still Moon Arts.
The creation of the community and bird collaboration began with an online talk facilitated by environmental educator Sara Ross (RedSara). Participants learned about the birds they might encounter in the early dawn and what birds are singing about as the sun starts to rise.
In Toronto, Friends of Sam Smith Park received a TD Park People Winter Grant for a Facebook-based photography contest where the winners are selected by the online community. The contest runs until the end of February.
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