1 Jun
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Cardinals to Cuckoos, Urban Birds are Everywhere

Redtailed Hawk nesting material Providence 2019. Photo by Dan Berard.

Parks are limited and social distancing is the rule, but birds are still flying. They’re everywhere right now, whether returning from far off winter homes or just coming out to find a mate. And you don’t need to travel to somewhere in the country to see them. Just look up.

“Actually, the odds are pretty high that you’ll see some good birds right in downtown Providence.” Dan Berard is a professional bird guide and naturalist, along with being president of the Ocean State Bird Club (www.oceanstatebirdclub.org) . He has decades of experience following birds around the world, and he’s “birding” even as this phone interview takes place. (Real enthusiasts never refer to their passion as “bird watching”; they use the more active term “birding”.) Berard says some of the most common urban birds can be a great way into the hobby.

“Some people look down on European starlings and House finches, but they have some really interesting behaviors. And once you start noticing birds in general, you start getting what I call a ‘search image’.” Like the buyer of a new car who suddenly feels like everyone is driving that model, the new birder will acquire a search image that makes them suddenly realize how many of one species or another there is.

Even the most common birds have something to offer, Berard says. “Everybody’s pretty familiar with the Rock pigeon, even though the colors are really diverse. There’s a lot of variation, but people still recognize them as pigeons. Why? They know the size of the bird, the habitat (the sidewalk), its behavior (fighting over pizza crust). Look at how they fly. Those are skills you can use to identify every other species of bird in the whole world. All birds have things that make them distinct. Look at the short tail length, strong short legs (of the pigeon): that’s a bird that’s built to forage on the ground. You’re not going to find a pigeon foraging in the trees.”

American Robin Providence 2019. Photo by Dan Berard.

While popular birding spots like Swan Point cemetery may be closed, there are many species to be found all over Providence and other urban areas. For the capital city, that’s due to the many trees that were carefully selected. “Walking along the sidewalk in Providence, you can see that they did a really good job of planting a huge variety of trees. There is a large assortment, like oak, cherry, and crabapple. With a variety of trees comes a variety of insects. That in turn encourages a wide variety of birds, since the birds feed on the insects. I’ve seen some really cool birds that are just hanging out in trees along the streets in Providence.”

Berard says that, while special equipment is nice, it isn’t essential. “The only thing you 100% need is interest. If you want to get binoculars, that’s fine, but choose something well within your means. A pair of Tasco or Bushnell binoculars will get the job done. And walking around with binoculars is definitely not the wackiest thing to wear these days. I’ve birded cities like Providence and Cambridge, and I’ve never had a problem. If you get out and walk your neighborhood in the morning, you’re going to start noticing things. You’ll notice the singing of the American robin, Northern cardinals. Morning and evening are the best times.”

A good field guide comes in handy, Berard says, like Sibley Birds East and Ken Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America. “There are others that say they’re for beginners, but these are the best.”

And there’s no reason to leave the kids inside while searching the skies for birds. “Kids love to find things. When I was a kid, I loved going on Easter egg hunts, and it can be the same thing with birds. Birding is Pokémon in real life, and just like Pokémon have their own habitats, so too do birds!

“One of the best ways to get kids into birds is by putting up a feeder. Give them something to watch. Once they can see the birds, they may want to learn more. If it’s within your means and where you live, it can be really important. If you’re just starting out, why not bring the birds to you?”

American Goldfinch Backyard Millbury 2020. Photo by Dan Berard.

He also says parents should be flexible about what children decide to observe. “If you’re outdoors and your child turns out to be fascinated by bugs or by flowers, I’d still call that a win.”

Above all, Dan Berard thinks people just need to get outside and carefully look around them. “I think people might be surprised at what they find!”



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