Backyard Birding 101 : Short Wave If you pay attention to what's going on in your own backyard, ornithologist Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez says the birds among us have been putting on a great show. Gutierrez explains migration, mating dances, nesting, and shares tips on how to be hospitable to the birds in your neighborhood.

Backyard Birding 101

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez says that lately a lot of people have been sliding into her DMs looking for bird advice.

VIVIANA RUIZ GUTIERREZ: You know - what is this bird? I took this picture out of my window. Or the descriptions sometimes sounds like there's crazy raptors and dinosaurs outside their windows. You know - there's this big bright yellow-orange bird nesting right on our door.

SOFIA: Viviana is a research scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And she says that there's something about staying close to home that has a lot more people paying attention to what's happening in their own backyards.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: We're kind of stuck in this routine - even myself included - where kind of the days are melding into one. And we're trying to find things that mark the time. And so I think when you start birdwatching, it kind of really takes us from ourselves.

SOFIA: If you listen to the show, you know that we aren't new to birding here. We covered #BlackBirdersWeek. Way back when, we even had a show about a birding board game. And it turns out even you, our nerdy SHORT WAVE listeners, have jumped on the birding bandwagon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'll tell you what, we are surrounded by birds right now. I'm just sitting on my front porch...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Looking over a field, we see a little blue bird. Do you see that little blue bird...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The one I hear the most is the dark-eyed junco that's sitting right on top.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There are geese...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It appears that the geese have gathered.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: One, two, three, four, five, six...

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: A lot of times, what we see are just, you know, the super expert birders who can go out and identify everything by sight and sound. But it really is a progression and has been really exciting just to see a lot of folks become so interested, I think, for the first time maybe in the whole entire time that they've lived in their houses, you know, who else lives with them there.

SOFIA: So today on the show, a little Backyard Birding 101 with ornithologist Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez. We talk migration, mating, nesting and a few things that you can do to make things a bit more hospitable for the birds in your neighborhood. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, NPR's daily science podcast.


SOFIA: OK. So we're talking with ornithologist Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez. And she says if you're around the East Coast and you looked outside your window, you might have seen some pretty cool birds this past month.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: Baltimore orioles, red-breasted grosbeaks - we're also been seeing indigo buntings.

SOFIA: These cool birds mostly showed up in the spring after migrating from places like Central and South America. And y'all, migration is wild.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: Yeah. So in general, 40% of all bird species around the world migrate. And they really come up here to take advantage of the resources, like increased insect availability. There are much fewer predators. And they'll be here about until August, and then they'll go back down to the tropics again.

SOFIA: And these journeys - these migration journeys are pretty impressive. Like, I don't think people realize how far they travel and how long it takes.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: You know, they use various ways to navigate. They use the sun and the stars, magnetic fields. They can fly anywhere from 15 to about 55 mph and travel anywhere from 15 to 600 miles a day.

SOFIA: Oh, my gosh.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: The blackpoll warbler, he basically doubles his body weight. And he flies nonstop for 86 hours, for about 2,300 miles (laughter).

SOFIA: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: They're really, really, really impressive.

SOFIA: And once the birds finally got here, it was time to find a mate. I asked Viviana what one eligible bird might be looking for in another.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: So their song, actually - so that's one of the things. If it sings a really good song (laughter) - if it's right on pitch, that means, like, yes, this is going to be a good mate. Color - color is also another thing. For example, in some species, if they're brighter red and - or the length of their tails, those are indicators that this is a really high-quality mate that I should accept as a partner. But a lot of it, it is the song.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Isn't it always, you know? Musicians do well, Viviana. You know what I mean?

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: That's true. That's true.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

And then, of course, there's the dancing.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: So for example, red-winged blackbirds do really, really funny dances and displays (laughter) to attract their mates.

SOFIA: Oh, describe the dance to me please, Viviana.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: They kind of shake and display their wings. And they really sing their little hearts out to attract other mates. It's a...

SOFIA: I mean, haven't we all?

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: (Laughter) Exactly.

SOFIA: These little lovebirds have to compete for attention. And competition is fierce out there, y'all.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: So some folks have noticed, for example, cardinals fighting with one of their mirrors in their cars repeatedly.


RUIZ GUTIERREZ: They become so aggressive that sometimes they just fight with their own reflection even. So they - you will notice birds fighting a lot more and just being a lot more vocal. But as they start nesting, you'll see that that will decrease.

SOFIA: By this time in the year, most of those fight-y (ph) birds have settled down, focused on being new parents, tending their nests and feeding their young. And Viviana says there are a few things that we can do to help our little bird neighbors out.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: And that's a question that even I ask myself. You know, how can I really help birds at home? And one of the main ways is to keep cats inside.

SOFIA: Yeah, sure.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: So it's estimated that cats, even domestic cats get fed a lot, they still go out and hunt and really impact birds.

SOFIA: Gotcha, gotcha. OK, cool. I like that you said that that was a question you ask yourself. The like, what - I'm picturing you get up in the morning and you're like, Viviana, what are you going to do for a bird today?

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: (Laughter) It's tough because there's different things you can do, for example, a bird-friendly breakfast. So if you work in the tropics like me, you really see what a difference the products that you buy make. So for example, the coffee that you buy - if you buy a coffee that has more shade or sustainable practices or bird-friendly coffee, that really has an impact. Bananas is another one that is huge, huge impact. They use a ton of pesticides to produce bananas. So paying 10 more cents for an organic banana really goes a long way towards helping birds while you're in your house.

SOFIA: OK, Viviana, one last thing - before you go, I need to know what your favorite bird to observe is, just from your home or your neighborhood. I know that's a big question. It's almost not even fair to ask.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: In the fall, I love watching cedar waxwings. And they're a beautiful bird that I can also see down in Costa Rica. And they're really, really hard to see in Central America. So when I came to grad school to the U.S. and saw flocks of them, I was really impressed. And you see them a lot near ponds, and you see them a lot just flying over at dusk. They have a cute little crest. They're just - they're just adorable. I really like them.

SOFIA: This was great. This was so much fun. Honestly, I've never wanted to bird as hard as I want to bird right now, Viviana.


SOFIA: But seriously, I think it's because you made me feel like I could. Like, it's not that intense.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: Yeah, you know, it's really about having fun with it. And to me, it's really about observing them. You know, what are their beaks like? What are they doing? And then I start thinking, why are they doing that? And that's kind of how I got to where I am right now - by asking those little questions.

SOFIA: OK, Viviana, I appreciate you. My plan is to go outside and just look at behavior and not put too much pressure on myself. That's my plan.

RUIZ GUTIERREZ: Yes, perfect.


SOFIA: A big thanks to Viviana Ruiz Gutierrez, ornithologist and backyard birding extraordinaire. This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Yowei Shaw and edited by Deborah George. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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