Can you introduce kids to bird watching and get “outside” during novel coronavirus times?
We read a short article written by a diehard baseball fan. She had bought season tickets to her beloved St. Louis Cardinals just before the pandemic hit. When the virus shut down baseball she said, “I’m not watching the Cardinals but I am loving the cardinals……the ones that sing in my backyard.”
Like the baseball fan, many people are enjoying birds in their yards and neighborhoods – often for the first time. Birding is an outstanding hobby and this spring is an outstanding time to start. Being confined to the house and yard is a great opportunity to introduce kids to birds. Also, usually, the best birding of the year is in early May when avian migrants move through and visitors from the far south nest nearby.
Birding requires no license. There isn’t a closed season. Enjoying birds is free and can be done everywhere, even in the biggest cities. It’s a hobby that can be started simply and may evolve into a lifelong passion.
Basic Homebound Birding with Kids
Bird watching is again a joy with hearing aids.
Special equipment needed: None, but a pencil and a few sheets of scrap paper can help record observations.
Encourage kids to watch birds in the yard. Most can identify cardinals, blue jays, and house sparrows but distinguishing species for a beginner isn’t essential. Just have kids note how one type of bird looks and acts differently than others. Essentially how a cardinal differs from a sparrow. Maybe have the kids sketch the birds they see.
The Next Step
Cost: Around $125 for entry-level binoculars and a basic bird book.
Equipment: Binoculars and a bird book and bird apps:
At this stage begin identifying and recording species seen. Read with a child descriptions of the life history, migration patterns, and habitat of different species.
List all the birds seen in the yard. This is the start of a “life list”.
A Little More Advanced
Cost: Not much. The basic equipment listed above works but add in a few dollars for gas to visit nearby habitats.
After a child can distinguish between backyard bird species and has used a bird book or app it’s time to search for more species. Bring along binoculars and a pad and pencil. Visit nearby wetlands, woodlands, and grasslands. Even with novel coronavirus shutdowns, most places allow people to visit parks and natural areas. Each will feature new bird species. Take note of them and read about each. Add new species to the list started with backyard birds.
Igniting a Passion
Most children are curious about nature and seeing just one or two fascinating birds can ignite a lifelong passion that may become a delightful hobby or even a professional career. Advanced birders purchase sophisticated optics and travel the world to see new species and learn more about these fascinating animals. Hopefully, the novel coronavirus will pass soon and the world opens to a youngster with a new birding hobby. It all can start by spotting a blue jay in the backyard.
Where to Get Information
At Winding Pathways, we have many paper bird books produced by several companies. We don’t favor one over the other but often refer to several when we’re trying to identify a bird new to us. Increasingly we rely on the Merlin App created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The descriptions of hundreds of bird species, along with photos and calls, is at the tip of our fingers on our iPhones. It’s free. Simply go to the App Store and search for Merlin. The Lab of Ornithology has many other fascinating resources that can be accessed from a computer or smartphone, and we love their paper magazine Living Bird.
The National Audubon Society is highly bird-oriented and has local chapters. Attending a meeting or going on a birding excursion with members is an outstanding way to connect with people who share a bird passion. Some chapters may offer ZOOM meetings. Others hold online excursions to help people get and stay connected. Earth Day saw a host of events online.
We also enjoy reading Bird Watcher’s Digest, a small format magazine that features articles about individual species and places to enjoy them in every issue. The Internet is loaded with many other bird resources.
Alpen optics are good quality with good value.
We are often asked what type of binoculars we use. None of our optics is high end. Rich prefers 8X42 power while Marion’s are 10X42. The first number is the magnification and the second indicates how much light enters the optic. Eight or 10 powered binoculars that give a clear view and fit well in someone’s hands are ideal for a budding birder. Tiny micro binoculars are great for travel but we find them much harder to use than larger ones.
Spring is the best time to see migrating birds, and the novel coronavirus is confining people to yards. It’s an opportunity to take notice of the colorful and interesting wildlife that comes to us. This is a wonderful time for a child to launch a birding hobby.
A few months ago, we posted a blog honoring Smokey Bear on his 75th birthday. Smokey was created by the United States Forest Service in an effort to encourage people to be careful with fire. His was one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history.
The allure of Smokey Bear.
Smokey is adorable yet commanding. When he said to drown campfires and snuff out cigarettes you did it without question. Today, we know that forest fires are a natural phenomenon with beneficial ecological impacts, but Smokey’s message still resonates.
Two Winding Pathways readers shared their memories of Smokey Bear.
Tracy McPartland of Cedar Rapids sent us a photo of her with Smokey taken at the Smithsonian. “I loved Smokey Bear as a kid. I used to voice imitate him even though I don’t know what his voice was like.”
Smokey has been well-loved.
Jim Rainey is a retired US Army LTC who lives in Pennsylvania. Recently, he told us he received a Smokey doll from Santa in the early 1950s when he was four or five years old. “I was enchanted by Smokey. And, my doll still sits on the chair in my office. Sometimes my dog uses him as a pillow. At age 65, or so, he has patches on his jeans, is missing some hair, and part of his nose is gone. A few years ago, we asked our three daughters what they wanted of our stuff and was surprised when our oldest daughter said she wanted Smokey. Before then I was thinking of having him put in my casket, but I really didn’t want him locked in a box for eternity. I’ll let my daughter enjoy him and think of me,” he said.
Rich also has pleasant memories of Smokey and passed his image whenever he entered the Boise, Clearwater, or Idaho Panhandle National Forests during his college years. In 1974 he was a US Forest Service Hot Shot and fought three wildfires in Idaho. He’s kept a Smokey poster on his office wall for years.
There is confusion. Technically he’s Smokey Bear, not Smokey THE Bear.
A former college contact, the Fazio Family, owns Woodland Catalog Smokey Bear Gifts and has a store in Moscow, Idaho. Anyone wanting Smokey items can order it online. There’s a Smokey Bear museum in a state park in Capitan, New Mexico. You can take a brief virtual tour at
Smokey endures for the ages. His message is clear, and his presence is endearing.
Lyme Disease is something you just don’t want. Rich has had it twice. It was no fun, and he was lucky. Nearly as soon as symptoms appeared, he visited our family physician. She prescribed a powerful antibiotic that worked wonders and left him with no lingering problems. Unfortunately, many Lyme Disease victims suffer pain and fatigue for years. It’s serious.
Collection of ticks
Lyme is often transmitted to a human from a bite by a tiny tick that picked up the disease bacteria from an infected white-footed mouse. It once was thought that deer were the primary carrier but mostly they are host to a tiny larval tick that infects a mouse that allows another tick to infect a person.
In theory, eliminating white-footed mice from a yard and home will greatly reduce the odds of transmission of this disease to people. Killing all of them isn’t feasible but reducing their numbers is.
About White-Footed and Deer Mice
White Footed and Deer Mice are amazingly common across much of North America. They’re the cute, native mouse, not to be confused with the common house mouse that originated in the Old World.
White Footeds naturally live in dry temperate forests with brush. That perfectly describes suburban landscaping. It’s likely that five to 20 white-footed mice live in close proximity to most suburban families. They’re nocturnal and rarely seen.
Here are some characteristics:
- They’re hoarders. Find a cache of corn, dog food, or acorns in a shoe or empty can and you’ve found a white-footed mouse cache.
- They reproduce like crazy. A 44-day old female can become pregnant and bear a litter after 22 to 28 days. Babies become independent in three weeks and soon begin having their own babies. Mom often has two to four litters a year.
- They don’t live long. A year-old mouse is elderly.
- Foxes, weasels, hawks, owls, coyotes, and many other predators love dining on mice.
- White Footed mice enjoy coming into homes, where they often find food and enjoy a furnace’s warmth. They can bring with them disease-bearing ticks.
Prudent homeowners carefully manage ticks, in part by reducing white-footed mice numbers. The fewer mice that live near people the lower the odds a person will contract Lyme Disease. So, managing mice and ticks makes for a healthier home and yard. Here are a few tips:
To reduce mouse populations and entry to homes:
- Welcome mouse predators. Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center says, “Two actions people can take to encourage owls are to protect large dead trees that aren’t a threat to people of buildings should they fall. Owls love them. Also, building and erecting an owl house can welcome owls to live near a home and catch and eat mice.” Barred owl nest box plans, and plans for many other birdhouses, can be found at www.nestwatch.org.
- Plug up holes that allow mice to enter a home and replace worn or broken weatherstripping. This is an important fall maintenance that also keeps cold drafts outside and reduces heating bills.
- Avoid feeding mice. They love dining on dog or cat food left in a dish overnight or birdseed left under a feeder. Only feed pets and wild birds what they can eat in a short time. Then, pick up and clean the pet bowl.
- Use snap traps to kill mice in the house. Avoid poison. A poisoned mouse can stagger outside to be caught and eaten by an owl, which can sicken or die from the poison.
A Few More Ways to Reduce Lyme Disease
In addition to reducing mouse numbers and applying a vaccine to keep survivors free of Lyme Disease bacteria here are a few other ways a person can do to reduce odds of infection:
Pants, boots, gaiters and insect repellents help protect from ticks.
Use Permethrin: When applied to clothing, not skin, this chemical repels and kills ticks. Rich purchased several sets of clothing from the Insect Shield Company that are impregnated with permethrin. Supposedly the tick-killing effectiveness lasts for 70 washings. The chemical is also available in spray cans to apply to any clothing.
Do Tick Checks: After being outside, strip down and check the body over for ticks. Then take a hot sudsy shower. Ticks usually crawl around on a person for several hours before biting. A tick merely walking on the skin can’t infect a person.
Opossums groom themselves carefully.
Thank and welcome opossums: New research indicates that opossums are tick vacuum cleaners. Ticks climb on them, but these primitive mammals groom often and eat the ticks they remove from their fur and skin. If you have a possum living in the yard be happy.
An Emerging Tool in the Battle Against Lyme Disease
A new product is being developed and tested by a major research company. It is an oral nontoxic vaccine placed in small baits. When strategically positioned around a yard, mice not yet infected with Lyme bacteria eat it and become resistant to the bacteria. Mice uninfected by Lyme can’t spread the disease to a person. If all goes well this product will be on the market by 2021 and may be a major help in reducing human cases of Lyme Disease.
Lyme Disease is an awful condition. Taking precautions to reduce the odds of being infected makes sense.
gaiters with tick guard help repel ticks.
*Note: Our assessment of WindowAlert is based on our experiences both from purchasing the company’s product and a complimentary set of decals to try.
Last fall as Rich was walking along the outside of the Cedar Rapids Public Library and found a tiny dead warbler on the sidewalk beneath a large window. Fall warblers are tough to identify but it was a blackpoll. Why did the bird hit the window?
This amazing bird has an enormous migration from the far north of the continent to the south each fall, with a reverse trip in the spring. The bird Rich found probably was only halfway through its autumnal journey. Its death was sad and probably could have been prevented.
Occasionally we have a bird crash against our windows at Winding Pathways, and a male cardinal persists in cracking his head against a window at our church in Cedar Rapids.
Bird numbers are declining at an alarming rate for many reasons. Certainly, habitat loss and climate change are taking a toll. Feral cats and windows also kill millions of birds every year. Some of that loss can be prevented.
Why Birds Are Killed by Windows?
According to Spencer Schock at WindowAlert, birds are impacted by windows for two reasons. First, all year, but especially during migration, birds simply don’t see the glass and assume they can fly right through it. That’s what happened to the warbler. Second, it’s springtime rivalry. The cardinal banging on the church window sees his reflection, assumes it is a rival and tries to chase it off or intimidate it. This behavior is common, especially among cardinals, and usually happens from late winter into early spring. It’s rarely fatal to the bird but can annoy humans inside the building.
How to Reduce Bird Strikes on Windows.
The simple solution for both types of bird strikes is to do something so the animal recognizes it is glass. Here are some ways to reduce window strikes:
- Close Drapes. But then people can’t see out and sunshine can’t enter.
- Put something over the exterior window that looks to birds like a barrier or physically keeps them away. Draping the mesh netlike material made to protect cherry trees from birds trying to steal fruit works. The downside is that sometimes birds get tangled in it.
- Put decals on the windows to help birds identify a glass barrier. We like the many designs sold by WindowAlert. They’re easy to apply, attractive, inexpensive and work well.
- Eliminate reflection to keep cardinals and other territorial birds from attacking their own image. WindowAlert has a material called Stop Bird Attack. It comes in a spray can that’s sprayed on the outside of the window. The material looks like white flocking put on Christmas trees to imitate snow. It eliminates reflection and can be easily cleaned off the window after the mating season.
Check the windows first.
Ready to spray
The spray makes the window opaque.
The BirdStop spray resembles Christmas tree flocking.
What to Do When a Bird is Found under a Window
A few times we’ve been sitting in our home and hear a bang as a bird strikes a window. We sadly find the poor animal lying still under the window. There are two likely outcomes.
This bird broke its neck hitting a window.
The bird is either dead or dying and there’s nothing we can do to alter that unhappy outcome. e bury the poor creature and add more visibility items to the window.
The bird has been stunned and will soon recover and fly away. Often a bird will recover, but while it is stunned it’s vulnerable to cats and other predators. Spencer advises gently putting the bird in a closed cardboard box or large paper bag. As soon as it has recovered, release it outdoors.
Probably the best thing a homeowner can do to help songbirds is to plant a diversity of native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees to create habitat. The next best action is to keep cats indoors and reduce the odds of collisions with glass using the methods described above.
Stuck at home? A tiny microbe is sure changing the lives of people worldwide. Unexpectedly, meetings and schools have closed and transportation is disrupted as uncertainty runs rampant. With every challenge comes an opportunity. We’re sticking close to home at Winding Pathways but are using more time around the house to do fun things and accomplish projects ignored during normally busy lives.
In the midst of uncertainty, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by events and suffer from lethargy and fatigue. That comes with the turf. So, being physically and intellectually active helps ward off melancholy.
With millions of kids now home with parents and other workers and retired folks staying closer to home and in apartments, here are a few productive activities we suggest. Anyone anywhere can engage in at least some of these activities. And, Winding Pathways invites you to create your own generative ideas to boost your immune system and help us all through this challenging time.
Attune to and with nature.
- Research affirms that contact with nature is calming and healing. Shinrin yoku also known as “forest bathing” is a way to connect with calming elements in nature. This concept extends far beyond the literal interpretation of a forest. Any natural area of any size can provide healing benefits. John Muir wrote it well:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
By connecting with nature wherever we are, we can learn and have a good time, too.
A water source helps attract birds.
Birding: Even in the biggest cities birds abound. Sparrows and pigeons are fascinating. Look closely at a group of birds hanging around the balcony or out the back door and soon you will note individual differences. Size. Shape. Behaviors. One sparrow, for example, may have an unusually colored feather while another has a twisted beak. Once you can identify individual birds, it’s possible to conduct simple research. Do the birds seem to hang out with their friends?
If odd feathered sparrow #1 seems to like being with crooked beak sparrow #2 maybe they are friends……or perhaps mates. How many different species of birds come to the Balcony or yard? You might be surprised. Look up. Spring is migration season and millions of big birds are heading north. Often their route takes them even over big cities. They often fly high so look with “soft eyes” for undulating strings of birds aloft.
Experiment. Put a birdseed mix in a feeder or even on a backyard table or the ground. What seeds do birds prefer?
- When the virus appeared, plants remained in winter mode across much of the country, but spring is fast approaching in the northern hemisphere. Now is a great time to keep a journal, or a simple list of the order in which buds swell and leaves emerge.
Work the garden to connect with the earth.
Gardening is a great remedy for stress, and it can yield a surprising amount of food, even in a tiny space. One of the best vegetables for kids to plant is the humble radish. These cold, hardy, spicy roots can be planted very early in the spring and often harvest comes in just a few weeks. Lettuce, chard, spinach, and other greens also can be planted early, but beans, tomatoes, corn, okra, squash, and many other veggies need to wait until winter’s frost is just a memory.
Take a walk
- Nature is pretty safe from Coronavirus. It doesn’t lurk in the woods. Poke around the yard. And, a ramble in a nearby park, woods, or along a trail is a stellar way to spend a few hours.
- Another option is to find a labyrinth outside to walk. The World Labyrinth Locator lists labyrinths across the world. A labyrinth is different from a maze. Labyrinths are designed to help people center, release what is on their mind or in their heart, receive inspiration, and reunite with their community in a positive way.
- Isolation isn’t fun. Call friends. A phone call is a great way to cheer a friend. And, check in with neighbors you rarely see. Think of ways to direct the conversation to the positive. Live the positive through regular practice. What does this do? Read below.
- Mindfulness is the ability to be present and aware of our thoughts with curiosity and kindness. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides excellent guidance on this. We practice this with adult students at Kirkwood Community College. To a person, they find benefit in reducing blood pressure, anxiety and heart rate, while their sense of calm increases.
- Another form is HeartMath which helps people focus first on breathing, then on creating a peaceful place in their mind that they feel in their heart and can return to anytime when under stress.
- Reduce time on social media and listening to reports on radio or television. Keep abreast as needed and avoid perseverating on the negative.
- Think and behave positively. Norman Vincent Pearle was a master at helping us shift into the positive.
- Laugh! Laughter releases positive hormones and neurotransmitters. An easy way to remember this is to give yourself a good DOSE of levity and positivity. Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. These counteract the stress hormones. How can we do this? Read jokes, watch funny films or old TV shows that make you laugh.
Healthy foods are important in this time of stress.
Eat Healthily. When we are under stress, we tend to eat more and the wrong foods. So, mind what you eat, drink water, and try some of these activities above and add your own.
Reading positive literature will help us.
Read Entertaining Materials. From Comic books to graphic novels to non-fiction, engage your brain, learn and go lightly through this time. Share an engaging article, book, poem or song with someone. Recently The Gazette featured a woman, Mary Fannie Woodruff, from Virginia who continues to bake pies at 103 years old! How cool is that? The article was a great read we shared with family in Virginia.
We have many ways that we can all move through this uncertain time and help each other out on this winding path of life.
When we moved into our home ten years ago, we ended up with more than a house. The former owner had regularly mowed most of our two acres. Within the next two years, we shrank the lawn by about half. A steep former lawn north of the house is now prairie and a fairly level quarter acre between our house and the road is Marion’s labyrinth that she created within a prairie we planted.
Today, most people call flower-studded prairies “pollinator patches” and interest is strong in transforming lawns into them. Here are just a few of the good reasons:
Why Plant Pollinator Patches?
- Color: Lawns are a monoculture of green. Pollinator patches feature three seasons worth of changing vibrant color as many species of wildflowers come into and go out of bloom. They are beautiful.
- Water: Closely mowed lawns don’t absorb rain well. Much of a storm’s water runs off, worsening flooding. In contrast, deep-rooted prairies channel most of a storm’s water into the soil, where it eventually recharges the water table and doesn’t worsen downstream flooding.
- Labor: We don’t enjoy endless hours walking behind a lawnmower. We will mow our newly planted prairie two or three times this summer and in the following years, we won’t mow it at all. The lawn takes about a dozen mows a year. So, we’re saving time and mower gas that costs money and creates carbon dioxide.
- Wildlife: We love watching our wren pairs forage for insects in our pollinator patches. By expanding our prairie we’ll welcome even more beautiful and interesting beneficial wild animals to our yard.
Our new prairie will be close to busy 30th St. Drive, so motorists cruising by will see the land transform. We’re partnering the project with the Monarch Research Project, Linn County Roadsides, Sustainable Landscape Solutions, and Pheasants Forever.
Many people want to create pollinator patches in their yards but don’t know how to do this. We will be blogging through the process to help folks know how this is done. Stay tuned and keep visiting www.windingpathways.com to learn how.
The heavy, up-slope clay soil will absorb water more efficiently and reduce runoff.
The crew from Sustainable Landscape Solutions determine soil type
Winding Pathways, Linn County roadsides, Pheasants Forever, the Monarch Research Project and Pheasant Forever make a strong partnersjhip demonstrating how to improve the quality of the land.
This year snow covers the lawn.