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Interest in birding soars during pandemic

Nathan Baker • May 18, 2020 at 12:00 AM

While social distancing keeps us away from most human contact, some are turning to their feathered friends for companionship and comfort.

Nationally, sales of bird feeders, seed and binoculars spiked after March, when precautions were first recommended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Downloads of popular bird identification apps also soared, suggesting new interest in birdwatching.

In mid-March, Andy McGlashen, Associate Editor of Audubon Magazine, suggested birding as a pandemic pastime. McGlashen pointed out the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in nature and the ability to observe birds safely during the pandemic.

The hobby’s popularity was helped by the pandemic’s timing. Migration season for many species runs through March and April and nesting season is in late spring, so activity at feeders is high.

Bryan Stevens, a lifelong birder and vice president of programs for the Elizabethton Bird Club, said watching birds is a perfect activity for social distancing.

“People are discovering what people who enjoy feeding the birds have known for ages,” he said. “Birds supply good entertainment at a modest investment on the part of those who enjoy watching them come to feeders. A bag of sunflower seed and the show can commence. Or a plastic feeder tube for holding sugar water brings in hummingbirds, which are a favorite of many people.”

Stevens said this year he has seen more interest in birds and learning about those people might see in their backyards. People have also shown more interest in nature photography and hiking, he said.

Helen Sirett, president of the Kingsport Bird Club, said she’s also noticed some increased interest from backyard birdwatchers.

More people are staying at home and working from home, where they can peer out their windows and see the rich wildlife outside. Some of those people are seeing impressive birds, like rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings as they migrate north, and want to know more about them, she said.

“It gets you out and into the outdoors focusing on what’s in nature,” Sirett said. “There are a lot of apps people can use on their smartphones to find out more about a bird they see and do a little research. It’s a distraction during this time to be focused on that. It’s a stress reliever.”

Sirett said birdwatching is in part a game for her. She keeps lifetime and seasonal lists of the birds she identifies on which dates. She compares them year-to-year and with other birders. Spotting unique birds makes the hobby even more exciting.

“Keeping lists and checklists, it gamifies it a little bit,” she said. “That’s an aspect I think people enjoy.”

Both bird clubs canceled their meetings and group activities during the pandemic to avoid gathering in large groups, but birders were still able to take part in the annual area bird count, during which they record the species they see and report them online. The annual count allows enthusiasts to help researchers track migration patterns and habitats.

For more information about bird clubs in Elizabethton, Kingsport or Bristol, look them up on Facebook. Stevens and Sirett said they’re always looking for new members, and soon hope to begin holding meetings and events again.