backyard bird watching: how I entertain myself during (and before) the age of social distancing

It started a few years ago. My mother-in-law gave our family a birdhouse for Christmas, it was a craft project she’d done. We hung it up on our shed in the backyard and didn’t think much about it.

Spring came, though, and I realized a family of birds moved in. Watching the parents swoop in to feed their babies every few minutes awed me; you could hear the cries for food from the back porch. The co-parenting cooperation inspired me, they both worked equally hard to calm the cries.

Then, tragedy struck. One morning I noticed the daily dash in and out of the house stopped, instead, the parents were crying mournfully from the top of our shed. I went to the back and discovered a few bodies of baby birds, lifeless in the grass under the house. I grieved myself, and the parents stayed out most of the day, calling, shrieking and fretting over their offspring’s disappearance.

My husband rolled his eyes when I confessed how sad the situation made me, but I couldn’t get over the little family in our backyards huge loss.

And then, a few weeks later … I noticed the parents circling back and forth to their home, and heard the cries of new babies from within. I’m sure I was projecting way more into the bird family than they were capable of feeling; how brave, I thought, how inspiring, they are moving forward with life, they are moving forward with love … once again, my husband seemed unimpressed with the proof that “life finds a way”, but I felt hope watching nature happen in my own backyard.

When we moved I honestly fretted over that birdhouse. Would the new owners of our little house keep it up? Would they understand the beauty and harshness that happened within those plywood walls? Or would they rip it down, disgusted by the remnants of nest falling out as they tossed it in the trash? And what about the brave family unit who overcame so much and pushed through with love and perseverance?


Our new home has a very large backyard, full of mature trees. When we moved we put up a few birdhouses, but alas, no family has ever moved in. It’s probably because there are plenty of better trees around to nest in.

For my birthday last summer, my mother in law got me a bird feeder. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but we set it up just outside the kitchen window. Almost immediately we had visitors. I downloaded the Merlin Bird ID app, a wonderful tool for identifying wild birds, and started to learn the names of each bird I’d see. Our most frequent visitors are house sparrows, purple and house finches, chick-a-dees, cardinals, blue jays, and grackles. I’ll also catch glimpses of titmice, golden finches, nuthatches, juncos, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, and larks.

This spring my husband set up three more bird feeders in the back of the yard, along a wire, and it’s just chaos back there. Everywhere I look there’s a bird flying or eating or fighting. I will literally stand at the kitchen window for 10-15 minutes at a time and just watch the movements and drama of the backyard. My kids are getting pretty good at identifying birds and they, too, spend a significant amount of time just gazing out our windows.

Of course, it’s not all woodland wonder. The squirrels are a real nuisance. We recently had to put our dog down (a totally different post to write about one day, maybe…) and she had been a great defender of the feeders. Now without her guarding, it’s getting out of control. I spend just as much time opening and slamming our backdoor to chase them away as I do watching the birds. I’ve tried crisco on the pole holding the feeder, I’ve resorted to throwing rocks at them, which takes out aggression on my end. I also purposefully miss them because, what if I actually hit one? Yikes. The squirrels, for their part, often go back to sniff the rocks, hoping they were actually chunks of food.

I recently, maybe, had a breakthrough on the squirrel repellent front. Spice. The squirrels hate it. I’ve been painting the edges and tops of the feeders with watered down sriracha sauce and it’s keeping them away. Birds don’t care about spice, apparently they don’t have taste buds (thanks internet!) so, for now, notch this in a win column in my battle against the rats with fluffy tails.


This post has gotten much longer than I anticipated, but I have a lot of passion for my backyard birds. The past few quiet, long days of social distancing have been filled with me sitting in the back yard with a book on my lap and my eyes following the comings and goings of my visitors. The first few days of spring are always glorious in their brightness and the fresh air after months stuck inside, and especially with everyone stuck at home, having the kids chasing each other in my backyard feels like a treat. It’s easy to forget about the troubled times when you enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Even my battle against the squirrels takes my mind from fretting over the economy crisis and my anxiety over the health of my loved ones.

Backyard birding is an easy way to engage with nature, and it honestly has given me so much entertainment over the past few years. I never would have thought I’d find myself into birding, but I’m ever grateful that it happened.

Now, excuse me as I plan to retire to the backyard on this sunny morning and refill the feeders and camp out in the corner to see what new visitors I get in the backyard.