After a hectic year, it’s time for “Slow Birding”

The feeders are filled and hungry; The scene can be seen. Are we ready to unleash our incessant daily to-do list and curl up to watch the birds?

I don’t mean the occasional look out of the window, but a long, thoughtful look.

A new book, Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard, suggests doing just that — during feeding season and year-round. The author, Joan E. Strassmann, is an animal behaviorist and Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Ludwig.

Slow birding, a term she borrowed from the slow food movement, isn’t checklist-driven birding that can almost feel like a competition, like dictating that more is better and less often is best. For a slow bird watcher – and Dr. Strassmann considers himself one – the reward is not a lengthy life list, but the connection and gaining insight into our inner circle of everyday birds.

“When someone asks me what new or exciting birds I saw on my morning walk, I smile and happily answer while listing the most common birds,” she writes.


She asks us to make a list of what she calls our “pet birds”: the ones in the backyard or in the neighborhood or in the park where we take our daily walks. The hope, she writes, is that we “appreciate their actions and begin to understand the biological basis of bird behavior.”

These species are not only the best known, but also the best studied. In Slow Birding, Dr. Strassmann distils what the slowest birders of all—researchers who spend years unraveling a mystery about a single species—have learned.

Her own research career has focused on organisms that aren’t exactly crowd-pleasers: social wasps and social amoebas. “But many decades ago I realized that birds are the way to teach concepts in animal behavior,” she said. “I always wanted my students to experience the joy of discovery.”

In the name of a deeper discovery, Dr. Strassmann combed the scientific literature and profiled 16 known species, including the northern cardinal and the blue jay. She offers suggestions on how scientific methods can be optimized so that we can study the birds themselves, combining the mindset of a biologist and the beginner’s mind of a meditator.

Their incantation: “Those winged dinosaurs that have abandoned stored fat, hollowed out their bones, and made many other compromises for flight—these organisms connect us to here and there, then and now as they chatter outside our windows or fly past ours Life.”

Birds, she writes, are “our closest connection to the wild.” But what exactly are they doing out there?

One tactic among many that Dr. Strassmann’s sacrifice to be a better observer seems more empathetic than purely scientific.

“I like to bird watch before breakfast when I’m hungry,” she said. “I feel it connects me because birds are always hungry.”

These sleek, mean flying machines are never far from starvation. A lab study of dark-eyed juncos that she includes in the book found that the birds lose 7 percent of their body weight when they rest overnight. That’s the equivalent of a 160-pound person losing just over 11 pounds in a single night.

The backyard feeder can be our own informal laboratory. We can observe evidence of what is known as “vigilance behavior”: when certain birds look up and on the lookout for predators while the others are feeding. Who does this and for how long?

Signs of dominance are also evident in this group setting. Who is crowding out whom on or below the feeder? Do certain species dominate, and do males or females of a certain species control the food-strewn lawn? (A field guide, the Merlin app, or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website can help identify and differentiate the sexes.) Take notes.

Next, focus on individuals. Try focal animal observation, a method named by a Princeton University researcher studying baboons in Kenya in the 1970s. Select a feeder bird and observe it for a predetermined period of time, noting each of its actions. For example, does it eat the seed right there, or does it carry it away? Then observe and document the activities of another member of that species, and then another—each for the same amount of time, maybe five minutes. Compare your results.

duck sketch. “I know people are embarrassed to start drawing,” said Dr. Strassmann, who took lessons from a neighbor who was a retired art teacher. “But I think if you try to just sketch the birds sometimes, you’ll find you can get a closer look at them than you thought.”

We’ve all seen the little dance of an American robin searching for food on the lawn. It runs a few steps before stopping abruptly, cocking its head and waiting, then forcing its beak to a certain spot to snatch an earthworm. How did it determine the worm’s location—by vibration, sight, smell, or sound? The robin responds to sounds, a study by two Canadian scientists confirms.

As familiar as the worm-hunting behavior is during the breeding season, earthworms are not the robin’s year-round staple; it also eats a lot of fruit. It will eat worms – but perhaps more importantly, vomited worms and insects make particularly good baby food.

Anyone who has been challenged by a pair of protective robins when approaching a robin’s nest will be surprised to learn that most contain eggs or chicks not fathered by the male on duty. The slow-paced birder keeping an eye on the pair will likely see them sharing feeding and other parenting responsibilities, but this apparent devotion is no indication of fidelity.

“This is perhaps the most famous case of everyone getting it wrong about birds,” said Dr. Strassman writes.

Most songbirds? Not particularly faithful, as it turns out.

For a better example of consistency, consider our second largest woodpecker (after the crested woodpecker).

“Northern flickers are faithful,” said Dr. Strassmann from the beautiful bird with the big voice. She describes its long call as “an unmistakable high-pitched staccato of about seven pulses per second, something like kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick.”

Like robins, ciliated chickens are often spotted on the ground hunting for a meal — except instead of worms, they prey on ants, a rich and surprisingly high-calorie food that makes up much of their diet.

Another loudmouth, the blue jay, has a special fondness for acorns, which Dr. Straßmann’s Slow Birder Exercises: Look for acorns under an oak tree in your garden or park. Are there empty caps? Blue Jays typically remove the caps before transporting the nuts to an intermediate storage facility for later consumption.

By moving these acorns, jays, certain mammals, and probably the extinct passenger pigeon, helped oaks regain their northern range after glaciers of the last ice age displaced them.

Whether those movements add up to long distances over long stretches of history, or just a surprise oak seedling in your flower bed, Dr. Strassmann’s Blue Jay chapter title is as cheeky as the bird itself: “Mighty Oaks from Little Blue Jays Grow”.

A tougher lesson from the food chain? See a Cooper’s Hawk swoop in and take down a songbird at the feeding station (or find the feathered remains of that encounter on the ground below).

Not long ago, Cooper’s hawks were known as chicken hawks and were almost wiped out for preying on farmer’s flocks. We also nearly doused her with DDT which prevented her from absorbing the calcium in their diet, often resulting in eggshells too thin to support their young.

But they have recovered. And along the way, they have created their very own definition of the term forage bird.

“This is the hawk of our time,” said Dr. Strassmann writes, “the one who has made our neighborhoods his home”.

Ordinary does not mean boring – or even that a bird is fully understood. Science keeps learning too.

Take the white-throated sparrows. Together with Juncos they define winter among our feeders, Dr. said Strassman. About half have brown eyebrows; the rest have white ones, which are most prominent in spring and summer. This is not an indication of gender, as suggested by John James Audubon in one of his artworks, or of age, a later misconception.

Each is a distinct form within the species – two genetic morphs due to chromosomal inversion – and each has distinct behavioral traits. Individuals with white head stripes are more dominant; those with tan, better grooms.

It gets weirder: whitebrowed individuals can only successfully mate with tanbrowed of the opposite sex and vice versa. So it’s like there are four genders out there – two versions of each.

Secrets abound.

Have you ever heard the high, thin whistle of a flock of cedar waxwings appearing out of nowhere just as the serviceberry (amelanchier) is ripening?

“Cedar waxwings are like thoughts that come up unbidden in meditation,” says Dr. Strassman writes.

But how does the waxwing, one of the most fruit-eating birds, know when the harvest is ready?

As the Zen master instructed his students: “Beware! Attention!” This is also good advice for the slow bird watcher.

Apparently the waxwings don’t need such a memory.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to the gardenand a book of the same name.

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