Illustration by Ellen Budell of an individual bird-watching on a hill
Birds can experience the feelings of freedom and independence that we might not have at the moment. (Illustration by Ellen Budell, Benedictine College)

Bird-Watching Can Bring a Sense of Freedom to Quarantine

For those trapped inside because of social distancing, birds can provide a powerful symbol of personal autonomy.

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Illustration by Ellen Budell of an individual bird-watching on a hill

For those trapped inside because of social distancing, birds can provide a powerful symbol of personal autonomy.

Seated at my desk, it’s often all too easy for me to sink into the monotonous drone of my newfound daily life — oscillating between the internet, my phone, back to the internet, repeat. This life stuck at home is an insular world of its own, with surprisingly little room for my own thinking amidst my constant pursuit of mindless occupation. And yet, there is still one colorful, vivacious, curious beacon of freedom that lies just beyond a pane of glass — bird-watching.

As someone who normally wouldn’t even notice a bird, it was a pleasant surprise to feel such excitement at seeing these magnificent, delicate beings flitting around in my yard just past my window. I was immediately enamored by the world of birds. Noticing a brilliant red cardinal or an intricately feathered blue jay in my peripheral vision was exciting enough for me to move my eyes two inches upward from my laptop to my window. I became immersed in the natural world.

Bird-watching has been a shockingly welcoming, gratifying and amusing experience. And from what I’ve gathered, there’s really only one rule: pay attention.

I pay attention to how a blue jay is a fleeting visitor. When the bird comes into view, it daintily hops across the grass a few centimeters at a time, then flies off to a neighboring tree or patch of shrubs. I pay attention to the beautiful patterning of the blue jay’s tail, and its intricate scalloped feathers of blue, black and white. I pay attention to how the bird pecks at the soil for worms, and its soaring dance once it encounters a friend.

This act of watching another creature go about its day as it intersects with my own can be hypnotizing and meditative. I imagine what it would be like to be a bird — soaring through the skies, descending upon lush green earth to catch dinner, singing songs to friends in distant trees. And in imagining the life of a bird, I realized that bird-watching gives me a taste of joyous freedom that we’ve been so deprived of for the past few months.

For far too long, I’ve been confined to the four walls of my bedroom, dreaming of what life used to be when I was free to go out to eat and hang out with friends. Meanwhile, in a distant world a few feet away from my window, creatures are freer than ever before to socialize, enjoy the plush greenery of spring and explore the endless, safe canopy of the treetops.

Although this realization was accompanied by a twinge of envy, I was more so swept by waves of calm and comfort. Even if our own freedoms have been derailed over the course of the pandemic, at least all hope and freedom in the world is not lost. The natural world has continued to run wild as it should, untethered by the social distancing, crippling political climate or cabin fever that has plagued human society almost as much as the coronavirus.

It is a relief to know that even as the human world continues to burn up in flames, our struggles and grievances mean nothing to the bird flitting about just a few feet away from where I’m sitting and contemplating my existence. And it’s reassuring to be reminded that humans occupy but a small pocket of the history of the entire natural universe.

While humans are inextricably wrapped up in their own triumphs and conflicts, the grandiose, elaborate, sweeping tale of birds has been unfolding in the trees for millions of years and will continue for millions more, long after humans are gone.

But it’s not just me who has found comfort and joy in watching our winged neighbors savor their freedom. Bird-watching has skyrocketed this year and experienced a surge during the pandemic. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a world record was set on May 9 for the number of birds documented in one day.

The extraordinary thing about bird-watching is that it’s accessible to everyone. It costs nothing to step outside and glance around your neighborhood, or even crack open the blinds and take a peek at the unexplored world of birds waiting for you outside. The never-ending hymn of a birdsong is likely floating through the air, if you’re willing to give it a listen.

If I’ve convinced you to embark on the journey toward becoming a casual bird-watcher, here are some tips for beginners: observe and listen, look out for patterns of behavior, be curious and record your findings. You might be surprised by not only what you learn about birds, but what you discover about your own connections to the natural world.

And if you’re ready to dive deeper into the realm of bird-watching, you might need some tools and resources to help you spot and identify the birds roaming around your neighborhood. Using binoculars can give you a wide, clear view of the birds you’re hoping to sight, and adding a bird feeder to your yard can bring the birds to you for a closer look. To actually distinguish what kind of bird you’re looking at, you can download a free identification app like Merlin or Smart Bird ID, or even take it old school with a field guide.

Whichever way you choose to engage in bird-watching, you can gain more than just a connection to the natural world — the act of bird-watching connects you with thousands of other bird-watchers across the globe who are also delighting in the freedom of birds and logging their findings. So although we all may feel imprisoned by our homes and our circumstances, let this be a reminder that freedom can just be a window pane away, flying alongside a flock of birds.

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