Make room retirees, younger generations want in on bird watching – The Globe and Mail

Sheridan Francis started birdwatching after moving to Huntsville, Ont. in the summer of 2021 and noticed all the birds in her back yard.Heather Holjevac/The Globe and Mail
Sheridan Francis had just moved to Huntsville, Ont., in the summer of 2021, when she noticed birds in her new backyard congregating around a berry bush. Ms. Francis, a 24-year-old photographer, grabbed her camera and began photographing the birds through an open window in her kitchen.
Bluebirds were the first ones she ‘captured.’ She later saw eastern kingbirds, phoebes, and robins, using the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify species unknown to her at the time. “That was a really cool and interesting way to start getting into it,” Ms. Francis explains.
She got her mother, who also lives in Huntsville, hooked on bird watching around the same time. Now the pair go out together two or three times a week to nearby birdwatching hot spots, such as the Algonquin Visitor Centre, the Algonquin Logging Museum and the Fairy Vista Trail to spot birds. They even travelled to Florida in December, 2021 and Newfoundland in June, 2022 to join guided birdwatching photography tours.
Being outdoors and easily distanced from others makes bird watching a pandemic-friendly activity, Ms. Francis says. Figures from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology show that average monthly Canadian users of their Merlin Bird ID app were up 59.6 per cent from 2019 to 2020, and 56.6 per cent in 2021 compared with 2020. The app was launched in 2014, and in 2021, a sound-ID function was added. It listens to birdsong in the user’s environment and offers real-time identification of species, like the song ID app Shazam, but for birds.
Yousif Attia, a digital content specialist and citizen science co-ordinator at Birds Canada, a bird conservation non-profit organization, has noticed an increase of interest in bird watching. Mr. Attia says subscribers to Birds Canada’s electronic newsletter have increased by 50 per cent since the pandemic began. “It’s been really nice to see,” Mr. Attia says. “The diversity of people, demographic-wise, age-wise [has increased].”
Mr. Attia also leads birdwatching vacations Eagle-Eye Tours, a B.C.-based company that organizes trips focused on nature and birdwatching. Ms. Francis’s June, 2022 trip to Newfoundland was led by Mr. Attia.
“It used to be the retired demographic and folks that are considered seniors [coming on tours],” he explains. “Now I’ve had several participants on my tours in their 20s. It’s obviously appealing to a younger generation.”
Mr. Attia also says naturalist groups are making an effort to welcome bird watchers from marginalized backgrounds. “Birds Canada and many other organizations have offered free membership to members of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ community.”
The rapid flow and ease of accessing information has also made bird watching more appealing and accessible to younger generations, bringing a wider audience to this hobby. “There are social media accounts dedicated to birding and the love of birds,” Mr. Attia says.
Improvements in photo technology have also contributed to the rise in bird watching. “You can take amazing photos without a lot of experience,” he says. “The equipment is so advanced now.”
The simplicity of photography makes it easier for beginner bird watchers to capture and upload a photo of an unknown bird into an app for identification, or perhaps share it with an online community for help. “People find connection that way, too,” Mr. Attia says. “There’s an online community of bird enthusiasts through Facebook groups.”
The spike in interest has been a boon to retailers specializing in the hobby, including those selling bird food and feeders. Tammy Johnston used to work as a salesperson at an international bird supply retailer in Edmonton. “Business there just went through the roof because people were at home and paying attention to what was going on in their own backyards, which includes watching birds,” Ms. Johnston recalls.
Sheridan Francis has enjoyed photographing birds and birdwatching with her Mom, and together they have gone on birdwatching trips in the past year.Heather Holjevac/The Globe and Mail
She saw an opportunity to start her own operation and opened Urban Bird in May, 2021, with a focus on selling locally made bird products.
Ms. Johnston has seen a mix of both beginner and experienced bird watchers visit her store. “The No. 1 question that I usually get is ‘how do I attract more birds to my yard?’” Ms. Johnston says. Her response depends on what types of birds the customer is drawn to.
“For example, if they want to attract blue jays to their yard, I always recommend peanuts in the shell in a peanut wreath,” she says. “It looks like a slinky in a circle.”
For chickadees, another popular species, Ms. Johnston recommends black oil sunflower seeds in a tube feeder.
Canadians aren’t spending quite as much time in their backyards as they had been. But Ms. Johnston feels confident that the interest in birdwatching will continue. “It’s almost like an addiction because you start feeding and it’s really hard to stop,” she says. “The more food and feeders that you put out, there are more kinds of birds that will come. It makes people happy to see the birds in their yard.”
The growth of interest in bird watching also has the added benefit of exposure to environmentalism, Mr. Attia adds.
“There’s an appetite for conserving natural areas that are important for birds. It’s sort of a catalyst for changing our actions and making sure that we preserve these birds and the things that we care about.”
Some actions he points to are putting decals on windows to prevent bird collisions, keeping cats indoors, and drinking bird-friendly coffee that preserves bird habitats where coffee is grown.
Volunteer-led initiatives such as Project FeederWatch, where residents watch birds at their backyard feeders, and the Christmas Bird Count, where volunteers gather information about the diversity of birds and their abundance in a specific location around the holiday season, are also a reflection of environmentalism.
“Providing information about birds, even in the urban environment, can be used to inform conservation decisions,” Mr. Attia says. “There are a lot of things we can do at home that can help reduce the negative impact on birds.”
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