When I look out onto my backyard, I almost always see birds. We have a mid-sized city lot in a town of about 4,000 people, so I have modest expectations, but I’m never disappointed. Most of the time, just by taking a few minutes to observe, I can find over 10 species flitting about in the flower patches, in the trees, or at the feeders or birdbaths we have set up. On good days during migration, we have seen over 20 species.

From a pretty young age I can remember my parents being interested in birds. Casually, I’d say. We didn’t go on bird trips, or to birding events, but they very interested in the birds around the house. Dad would make bird feeders and put them up around the garden, they’d keep binoculars handy while they were sitting on the deck, and a bird identification book (or two) were always handy. While I was growing up we lived in several different habitat types – a farm, a house in the woods, and in dense urban suburbs. As you would think, the bird species were quite different in each of those areas, but I didn’t really understand that until I was older. I just remember mom grabbing the binoculars as we sat on the deck to spot a bird calling in the woods or looking at the barn swallow nests in the barn, or spotting orioles high in the trees weaving their nests.

For Christmas one year, all of us kids got a pair of binoculars, which I used up until recently when I upgraded. The technology of binoculars, like most things, has advanced tremendously, and now you can get quite good binoculars for under $300. They let in much more light than those older ones, giving brighter images; they’re significantly less weight, and they have a wider field of view so you can see more. It makes bird watching a lot more enjoyable. Using a harness also helps avoid neck strain – they’re less than $20 and wrap around your shoulders instead of your neck.

The birds we see today, though, are often different than the ones I would have seen 40+ years ago. Gone are the whip-poor-wills that I heard every summer night on the farm. Degradation of habitat and insect reductions have reduced their populations by 70% since I was young and heard them on the farm. They are a bird that sleeps during the day, feeding at night on insects, so too much light pollution, urban sprawl, climate change, and our increasing use of pesticides have made an impact on their ability to feed. There are a few areas around Vernon and Crawford counties where I can still hear them, and it often makes my heart ache for those days when they used to be common. I am surprised by the number of older farmers I work with who bring up whip-poor-wills as a reason they are considering adding native plantings to their farms, partly to help the birds.

Insect declines are affecting all sorts of birds. Insects are high in protein, and their abundance in spring is one of the reasons birds find it advantageous to migrate all the way from South or Central America up to the Midwest and Canada to fledge their young. They could save the energy and travel risks and stay down south, but it’s worth it to come up here and have an abundance of high protein insects to feed their young for a few months. Now, those calculations are changing, as numerous studies have documented how native insect populations are crashing. It’s not exactly clear why, but climate change, insecticide use, night-time lighting, and non-native plants all contribute. It’s sometimes hard to believe, when we’re engulfed in gnats or the Japanese beetles are destroying our garden plants, but a 2023 report in the Ecosphere Journal documented a 35-year study in Colorado showing a nearly 50% decrease in insect biomass and a 62% decline in abundance. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that 5 to 10% of all insect species have gone extinct in the last 150 years. To put it in perspective, when was the last time you drove at night and had a windshield covered in bugs? It’s been a long time for me.

I remember when I was living in Sweden, and some new friends there were into bird watching, so we would go to one of the many islands or lakes there and see birds. It was there that one of my friends explained about the tight link between phenology (or the time of the year when plants grow and bloom and insects appear to feed on them) and bird migrations. Birds and plants and insects have co-evolved, so as plants grow in the spring and they bloom and attract insects, the birds migrate at just the right time to eat those insects and their larvae. The plants are getting pollinated and spreading and the birds are getting high protein food for their young. Then when the blooming is done and the insects fade back, the birds are done and start heading south again. What a system! If we were designing it from scratch we couldn’t make it any more interconnected or elegant!

Even in Sweden, though, I was still only interested in birds a little bit. I didn’t know much about them (especially European birds), so it would be fun to go out with friends and see them, but that was about
it. Then some years later I discovered guided bird walks on the Minnesota River, near where we lived. Going along with 10-20 other bird folks and listening to an amazing expert who could find birds, identify
them, and give life-history information on them was fascinating. During spring migration the birds were non-stop for an hour and a half, and I loved learning about the mostly invisible migration that happens
with billions of birds all around us every year. The hikes were great, too, because the skill set of the people ranged from total novice to quite expert, and, unlike many other hobbies, people were eager to share their excitement and knowledge. You could try other people’s binoculars or spotting scopes; learn about the different kinds of bird identification guides, find out what areas are good for birding at what time of year or day and how to access them, and talk about what we could do as individuals to help birds.

When I think back to my mom and dad watching birds, with older binoculars and bird ID books at hand, I am struck by how technology has changed. I still use a bird ID book, well-worn and thumbed through as I try to identify birds in the field. My binoculars are much smaller and lighter but more powerful, and Smart Phones have changed the game. One phone App in particular I find very helpful, called Merlin, is from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s free, and the Cornell Lab is a world leader in bird information and support. Merlin does a couple of things very well. First, before I go out, I let it determine the date and where I am from my phone automatically, and it will show me a list of birds that are likely to be near me based on history. In the middle of winter, it shortens the list of possible birds I’ll see by removing species like hummingbirds or orioles or warblers which aren’t around then. It makes it much more likely I’ll be able to keep focused on the probable birds, rather than a whole book of birds that aren’t going to be here. Second, just in the last couple of years it has added a sound identification capability. I just turn on the microphone, and it will listen for birds and give probable identifications. It’s not perfect, but I would say that it’s 90% accurate. If I’m out and it says there’s a Golden Crowned Kinglet nearby, I start looking for that. They’re hard to spot as they’re secretive and flit around a lot so you only get eyes on them for a second, but if I know that’s what I’m looking for, it’s much more likely I’ll spot it. My parents could only have dreamed of such things!

Another activity that helped me expand my appreciation and understanding of birds was supporting the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas (WBBA) work. The WBBA is a project where every 20 years, for five years, volunteers scout an assigned 3-mile square to identify where birds are breeding. It’s much harder than it sounds. You first have to get permissions from private landowners in your square, then identify birds, then determine if they’re breeding. That last one is a big step – it’s not just saying ‘oh, there’s a northern cardinal’ and you’re done. You have to keep watching that bird for maybe an hour or more to see if it is engaging in a variety of possible mating behaviors, like singing to the opposite sex, or building a nest, or feeding young. It made me slow down and appreciate all the different activities that birds engage in. The book that they print at the end of the project, and the website with all of the data, is a fantastic resource to learn more about our Wisconsin birds.

Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) are another great way to enjoy birding. Each year, the Audubon Society hosts the Christmas Bird Count from mid-December to early January. There are count circles all over the country, each one 15-miles in diameter. The circles are divided into 10-15 smaller sections by a local coordinator, and volunteers are assigned a section to go out and drive or walk through, counting birds. The count has been going on for 124 years and has produced a staggering amount of data to help monitor bird populations. Wisconsin has over 100 circles, and around here there are circles in La Farge, Retreat, La Crosse, Upper Kickapoo Valley, and Richland Center. I’ve participated in CBCs for over 10 years, both alone and with others, sometimes by car and sometimes on foot. It’s a great way to get out and see the countryside and help bird science.

There are a total of about 400 bird species that have ever been seen in Wisconsin at any time of year. Of those, in the middle of winter, there’s about 40 species or so that would call this ‘home.’ That is, they live here, breed here, stay here, and live their whole life here, year-round. So, for a CBC, there are only about 40-ish species to identify. Just as an aside, then, that means about 90% of the bird species we see here are temporary – just passing through during migration or just here to breed before heading ‘home,’ probably to South or Central America. A few would even call this their ‘winter home’ as they migrate down to here from the arctic for the winter before heading back up there for the summer!

An interesting aspect of birding is that we’re always learning things, and there’s always room to know more. Locally, I had known about chimney swifts using the chimney on a large old brick building downtown to roost, and on summer evenings you could see over 100 birds going into the chimney to roost. One evening last year, we didn’t see any birds there, but someone said there were birds using a different big chimney in town I had never even noticed before. I went over, and sure enough, there they were, about 100 birds roosting there! A friend, who I think would self-describe as a new birder, was very interested in this, and went around for several weeks every evening, and found five large chimneys the birds would use! As migratory chimney swifts came through our area in the fall, he would see up to 400 birds at a time! All because of his personal interest and commitment, we now know there’s a lot more questions about swifts than we were aware of. This year, to build on his efforts, we plan to have several nights with many volunteers to watch all the chimneys at once, to see if they move around from night to night. Oh, the things we’ll learn!

There are a few things everybody can do to help birds with no permissions needed:

  • Plant native plants and shrubs and trees whenever you have the chance, instead of non-natives. The birds co-evolved with the native plants and ALWAYS do better with them.
  • Protect the birds from window strikes. There area many different kinds of strike guards, from decals to strings hanging down (which is what we did on our house). We have gone from half a dozen bird strikes a year (and we don’t have that many windows!) to essentially zero.
  • Feed and water the birds. We use a heated bird bath in the winter, and it is terrific for attracting birds. Feeders aren’t generally necessary, as studies show birds get less than 20% of their energy needs from them. We have some, but they’re more to bring the birds in a little closer so we can enjoy them. Keep them clean, though! Wash them with vinegar at least every month; more often for things like hummingbird feeders which need to be cleaned twice a week.
  • Put up bird houses – tailored for the kind of bird you’re looking to help. The house designs for ducks, owls, woodpeckers, or songbirds are all VERY different from one another.
  • Reduce your exterior lighting to the minimum needed, and use yellower light bulbs instead of bluish light bulbs.
  • If you have dead trees or branches that aren’t a hazard, leave them! They provide food and habitat for many birds.

Keep enjoying birds, they are such fascinating creatures and beautiful to watch!

Juvenile Downy Woodpecker photo by Harry Peterson.