How I Keep Calm: Amateur Birding

Turns out life in the suburbs can be pretty exciting if you just look up.

Like other 20-somethings who were fortunate enough to escape New York City in early March, I’ve been holed up in my parents’ house in suburban New Jersey for months.

Not too long ago, maybe sensing my boredom, a friendly neighbor offered to bring me, my parents, and my visiting girlfriend on a casual birding excursion around our neighborhood. Birds had never really been my thing — I didn’t actively dislike them; they were just never really on my radar. The cats and dogs of Instagram are tough competition.

I agreed to join, but didn’t expect much more than a walk on a pleasant sunny day. Even though my parents have a bird feeder in their backyard, I was used to seeing mostly pedestrian birds around, like doves or robins. Occasionally I’d see a cardinal or two, which I must admit felt pretty exciting. Their intense bright red color seemed exotic in the middle of two-car garage suburbia. But other than that — and an occasional hummingbird flitting around in the backyard — birds just always seemed, well, boring.

But my low expectations for the walk were quickly surpassed. Within a few minutes, just on my parents’ short cul-de-sac block, our neighbor Peter identified seven or eight species with quirky names, species that I had never noticed or heard of. He guided us to look up much higher in the trees than a human normally looks — there was a whole other world up there, screeching and rattling with life. I was hearing sounds I had never heard before.

From there, we moved onto side streets and eventually walked along a shallow creek that runs adjacent to the nearby high school. From just the faintest hint of a sound or flash across the sky, Peter could identify dozens of species. There was the bright coat of the yellow warbler; the whip-fast, effortless glide of the small barn swallow; the annoying squawk of the fish crow; the epic glide of the massive blue heron; the glittery chrome sheen of the starling; the epic stare of the red-tailed hawk. He even pointed out a turkey vulture that floated overhead, which I had wrongly assumed was a hawk from long distance.

Suddenly, the boring, familiar environment that I had walked through for months, usually in a post-work daze, was lit up and fine-tuned with color and sound and movement that I had been completely missing. It was all right there — my brain just wasn’t trained to process it.

After the walk, Peter sent me an email with a list of all the species we had seen during the hour-long journey. It was close to 40.

I don’t suddenly have ambitions to become an expert birder, but the experience radically altered my quarantine perspective. My time spent working or reading outside in the backyard and walking around the neighborhood is so much richer. I don’t have to dwell on pandemic or work or social life stress — I can leave that world by immersing myself in a mini-beginner-birding experience, even just by walking around the yard.

Pre-pandemic, my weekday routine used to be: roll out of bed, grab a breakfast bar, run to the subway, work without much of a lunch break, then get back on the subway, get home, and make dinner. I love New York City more than the average person, but I’ve realized there’s so much of the world I was missing every day because I didn’t know where to look.

I’ve since forgotten a lot of the names and sounds of the bird species that Peter taught us about (although I do know a core few; for example, the blue jay, which I recognize all the time now, sounds like a dying cat). My girlfriend downloaded an app that can identify nearby birds by their calls, and I tried to follow suit, but it was made for Android and I have an iPhone.

But it has been nice not having the app, not feeling the urge to capture every moment — like I used to do at concerts and other events — and instead just experiencing it. Now I sit back and enjoy the many worlds in the trees — there’s the dove couple that quarrels like husband and wife; the male cardinal who reserves the bird feeder for his female partner, chasing others away; the kildeer who goes fishing alone for tadpoles in the creek; the red-capped woodpeckers who help each other in their humorous task. (As I write this, one is researching the wood of my parents’ backyard deck by lightly pecking it.)

And from there, other worlds open up: the network of squirrels and their favorite tree branches, which they speed across like cars on a road, and the bushy-tailed rabbits who tend to hide in the shadows of trees but occasionally come out to gorge themselves on the grass of our lawn.

In other words, the birds have taught me how to be zen.

I’m reminded of an essay by an old professor of mine, on knowledge for knowledge’s sake — the idea that we shouldn’t just learn to make more money or contribute to the endless productivity and progression of society. He argues that we should learn things just because it makes everything around us that much richer and more interesting.

His main example was that of a painting: the person who doesn’t know a lot about it will walk past without caring much. The person who knows about the history and the context and the technique will get so much more out of looking at the painting, and therefore so much more out of that moment of her life.

“The experience becomes ‘bigger’ because you are educated. Not merely in the sense that you can look at the painting longer without being bored, but also in that within a single look you will see more,” he wrote.

If quarantine is the painting we’re stuck with, we might as well lean into it. And look for the birds.

Image of yellow warbler in header by Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography/Getty Images.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

Gabe Friedman

Gabe Friedman (he/him/his) is JTA's Deputy Managing Editor. He was previously JTA's Associate Editor for Digital. Gabe has also been published in The New York Times, Pitchfork and the Village Voice, and he is a graduate of the University of Chicago.

Read More