Birding is the perfect hobby for COVID times –

You’re inside. They’re outside.  
As The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, could have told you, birds have a real fascination for those in lockdown. Which, since March 2020, has been pretty much all of us.
Birding seems to have become a thing during the age of COVID. And is it any wonder? It’s one of the few pastimes that can be enjoyed from your kitchen window.
“One of the first questions I got during the pandemic was, ‘Is it me, or are there more birds around?’ ” said Don Torino, president of Bergen County Audubon Society.
“And I would say, ‘It’s because you’re finally noticing the birds’ ” Torino said.
Of course, conditions aren’t quite as Attica-like as they were two years ago, when we were all under house arrest.
We may not, these days, be getting our groceries delivered, and schooling our kids online. But many of us are still working from home. Leisure activities, travel plans, socializing — all have been drastically curtailed. Our world has shrunk a lot since 2019.
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So it’s no surprise that, with our movements restricted, a lot of us are paying more attention to our immediate surroundings. Our backyards. Our windowsills. Birding, like charity, begins at home.
“You’re looking out your window and you’re seeing stuff,” said Jim Wright, an Allendale birder who has written several books on the subject, and whose column “The Bird Watcher” can be seen alternate Thursdays in The Record.
“Birding is one of those things where the more you look, the more you see,” said Wright, whose latest book “The Real James Bond” (not the secret agent, but the ornithologist who was his namesake) came out in 2020 from Schiffer Publishing.
 “It’s great to be a new birder, because everything is new, and you’re experiencing all these birds for the first time,” Wright said.
Do birds and pandemics go together? The last one, the great influenza pandemic of 1918, left us with this jingle: “I had a little bird, Her name was Enza, I opened up the window, And in-flew-Enza.” 
Any correlation between COVID, and the uptick in birding since 2019, must be speculative. But an uptick there is.
The Great Backyard Bird Count, a community project that taps amateurs around the world — it’s been conducted every February by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society since 1998  — has experienced a growth spurt. In 2019, they logged 224,781 participants. By 2021, that number had risen to 300,000-plus.
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“In general, the trend is people are using citizen science to stay engaged and paying attention while being forced to quarantine due to the pandemic,” said Becca Rodomsky-Bish of the Cornell Lab, and project leader of the Backyard Bird Count.
But it’s also true that new tools, introduced over the past few years, have made bird-watching more exciting for the amateur.
In particular, there is Merlin.
“I see people walking around holding up their cellphones,” Wright said. “And that can only mean one thing. Someone has told them about this app called Merlin.”
Show Merlin the picture you snapped in your backyard, and the app will tell you what bird it — probably — is. A new feature, introduced in the past year, can identify the bird-song you’ve recorded.
All with a high degree of accuracy, though no new technology is foolproof. “It’s still young,” Wright said. “It might give you some false positives.”
There is also an app called eBird, that keeps track of your bird sightings. “It can tell you what bird you saw where, at a click,” Wright said.
You’ll still want some old-school tools, like binoculars. You can pick up a good pair for about $200, Wright said. “Binoculars are good to have around,” he said. “You can use them for anything.”
Birding, however you do it, is an especially rewarding hobby for those of us in the mid-Atlantic states. It so happens, Torino said, that we’re in an avian hot spot.
“We live in an incredible place,” Torino said. “If you love birds, this is the place to be. We live on the Atlantic Flyway, which is the great migration route for birds. It’s like the Route 95 for migratory birds. And you have all these habitats: the Meadowlands, the Hackensack River, Delaware Bay, the Hudson River. And all the local nature centers.
“You’re going to see more birds here than in most other places. We are really blessed. We take that for granted here.”
And one of the great viewing opportunities, both for migrating and native birds, is your own backyard.
“It’s a whole habitat,” Torino said. “Nature starts in your backyard. It’s a part of nature. An integral part of nature. It’s a stepping stone to the survival of birds.”
That tree in your yard is not merely an environment for birds. It’s multiple environments, for multiple species.
“Nature works at different levels,” Torino said. “It’s called stratification, in ornithology. Some birds use the top of the trees. Some use the mid-level canopy. Some are on the ground. Every level of your backyard is a potential bird habitat.”
If you’re in the tri-state area, and it’s early February — which you are, and it is — you might discover colorful locals like cardinals, chickadees, and nuthatches. 
But you might also see long-distance visitors like the white-throated sparrow, the American tree sparrow, and the junco, using your backyard as a hub between flights. Or perhaps, as a destination. 
“The American tree sparrow travels probably farther than any bird you’ll ever see,” Torino said. “It’s an incredible journey for a tiny bird. It comes from the tundra areas of Canada just to spend winters in your backyard. This is like Boca Raton to them.”
You’ll want to make your guests welcome, of course. Feeders are great for birds — and also great for you, since they keep birds within observational range.
“Cardinals just like plain old sunflower seed,” Wright said. “You can get a suet feeder, if you want woodpeckers. People love woodpeckers. If you want to get the state bird of New Jersey, the American goldfinch, you put out a nyjer or thistle feed.”
Make sure you get a feeder that does not accommodate pigeons (unless you’re a pigeon fancier). And make sure not to leave stray seeds on the ground. 
“You don’t want pigeons, no offense,” Wright said. “You start feeding them this stuff, you get pigeons in your yard, they start crapping over everything and the neighbors get irritated.”
Birds are fascinating. Comforting too, at a time when we’re all grounded. “They give us hope,” Torino said.
Birds represent freedom. That means something to us, now.
At a time when we’re stuck, they can fly away. Maybe — someday soon — it will be our turn.
“If a tiny bird like a tree sparrow can travel all those miles, if a hummingbird can come from Panama right to your backyard here in congested New Jersey or New York, then anything’s possible, ” Torino said. “If that’s not a sign of hope, what is?”
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Twitter: @jimbeckerman1