As we approach more than a month of our “stay at home” order from Idaho Governor Brad Little, this time of isolation has directed me inwards. I’ve slowed down and opened up my curiosity to explore the connection, security, and responsibility of becoming a person of place. 

Over the last 5 years, I’ve lived abroad, moved more than 13 times, and took pride in identifying myself as a nomad. However, this comes with its own challenges, which I won’t get into here. 

During this time of isolation, I’ve begun to feel the pull of Idaho, which envelops me in a newfound awareness that I’m now Idahome. A part of what it means to be a person of place is to have a connection to a total community or ecosystem, including species, landscapes, soils, stories, and people. And with this deep connection grows a sense of security, belonging, and responsibility. As the environmental advocate, Gary Snyder said, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.”

One of the ways I decided to foster this connection with Idaho and actively become a person of place is through bird watching. No need for expensive equipment, just the requirement to be present. As we’re in the midst of spring and near the onset of summer, there’s no better time to connect to our feathered friends right outside our window! 

There are over 430 species of birds here in our state of Idaho and with the wide variety of landscapes, ecosystems and climates, this presents a wide variety of birds to discover wherever you are. For all you fellow beginners out there, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great resource to kickstart your birding explorations. Here are their four tips for learning bird calls and songs:

  1. Watching and listening. When you’re able to see a bird and connect it with its song, you tend to retain it better.
  2. Learning from an expert. It’s a lot easier to learn bird songs by having a knowledgeable bird watcher point them out to you. Check out your local Audubon Society chapter for resources 
  3. Listen to recordings. Kick start your bird identification and start listening to recordings of birds you frequently see. Check out the Cornell Lab’s free Merlin Bird ID app and their Macaulay Library.
  4. Say it to yourself. When you hear a new bird song, what words does it sound most like? Mnemonics can make it easier to remember and research the mystery bird later.

Here’s how it worked for me. I kept hearing a bird song that sounded like “Hey there! Hey there!” I took this mnemonic to the Merlin Bird ID app and discovered that it was the song of a Black-capped Chickadee. While I was already familiar with another of the Black-capped Chickadees’ calls, “Chickadee dee dee…,” it was a fun discovery to learn that a bird’s calls and songs can be different and they can have multiples of each. 

After this discovery, I decided to test it and played the Black-capped Chickadee bird song, “Hey there!” out my window. I was pleasantly surprised when a Black-capped Chickadee immediately flew into a nearby tree and echoed the same song!

As for bird identification, the Cornell Lab recommends the best way to jump in is to practice learning to recognize a bird’s specific group. These four factors will help: 

  1. Size and shape. What is the general size and shape of the bird? Remembering a bird’s silhouette can be very helpful. Once you begin to understand silhouettes, you can begin to turn your attention to the size and shape of specific parts of the bird’s anatomy. This will provide clues to its habitat, flight patterns, and diet.
  2. Color patterns. Pay attention to overall color pattern versus precise coloration details. This can be good practice to start to learn general coloring patterns of different bird groups.
  3. Behavior. Observe how and where a bird is moving, feeding, sitting. Is it in a flock? Is it displaying any notable personality traits?
  4. Habitat. Have a general understanding of the habitat(s) you are in, that way you can begin to critically think about what birds you may see. Range maps and awareness of the time of year you’re birding can be helpful to narrow down on the probability that the mystery bird is one type over another.

For those of you interested in taking your birding to the next level, there are opportunities to participate in citizen science efforts through your local Audobon Society chapter, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or local universities. Right now, the University of Washington is currently studying how humans directly and indirectly affect bird communities in the Northwest region, focusing on bird responses to social distancing. They’re asking people in the Northwest to sign up and document certain birds they hear and observe in a specific place, such as one’s backyard. This requires birding for 10 minutes at least once a week through June 30th – beginners welcome!

Regardless of where your birding journey takes you, for those that have the capacity, perhaps this can be your invitation to open your window a little more frequently and embrace becoming a person of place.