Armchair birding

Birds flock to Mama’s feeders this time of year. She has several seed and suet feeders hanging from the maple outside her living room window. At times, upwards of a hundred birds – maybe a dozen species – joust for perches, flit among the branches, scoot up and down and around the trunk, and scratch among the seeds scattered on the ground. When the Cooper’s hawk swoops across the yard, they blast off in all directions. Mama kicks back in her La-Z-Boy and takes in all the action.

Writer John Yow also favors this approach. His book, The Armchair Birder, is devoted to species commonly observed in our backyards, sometimes from the comfort of our recliners. Yow lives on a wooded, 40-acre tract less than an hour northwest of Atlanta, making his observations relevant to many of us in the Uwharries and across the southern Piedmont.

Photo Gallery

What birds do you see outside your window? Local birder and photographer Liz Odum shared some glimpses from her backyard feeders. Click to go to gallery below.

If you think common birds can’t be interesting, think again. I realized I’ve taken American robins for granted. After describing their cheerful song, their ardent courtship and their lovely blue eggs, Yow laments not being able to enjoy any of these charming features – the birds that winter around his house head north for breeding season. Really? I thought birds from farther south arrived when they left, sharing our habitat like a tag team. Yow admits the Southern subspecies of the American robin breeds in some parts of our region, but he goes on to explain that “this bird’s discovery of the amenities of town life has rendered it utterly cosmopolitan, to the point that it’s now hard to find one outside the city limits.” How had this escaped me? Unlike the robin, I migrate between rural and urban areas on a regular basis. I recall a robin nesting in the crook of a downspout next to our townhouse in the middle of Atlanta last summer, but I’m ashamed to say I’ve never missed them in the Uwharries during breeding season.

Yow sprinkles his text with quotes from other writers, including luminaries like Audubon and Thoreau. In an age given to sterile scientific jargon, I was delighted by their colorful and engaging language. Yow is obviously smitten with their prose as well. Their influence is apparent when he speculates about what inspires unmated mockingbirds to sing well into the wee hours of the night. “My guess is that nobody’s going to find a mate at that hour – at least not one you’d take home to Mama – but that a sweet song might ease the burden of loneliness,” he writes.

While I gained a new appreciation for Audubon as a wordsmith, the black-and-white reproductions of his paintings that accompany each of Yow’s essays were also enlightening. The lack of color allowed me to focus on his use of form and composition to convey information about a bird’s habitat and habits. His turkey vultures are foreboding masses that almost fill the canvas. It’s hard to spot all the ruby-throated hummingbirds amid the busy arrangement of trumpet creeper. Mockingbirds rush from all directions to attack a rattlesnake coiled among the Carolina Jessamine.The chuck-will’s-widows are stylized and surreal, fitting for a bird we typically experience as a disembodied voice.

The essays are grouped by season, which can seem a bit arbitrary, and even confusing, at times. I puzzled over the rationale for assigning permanent residents like red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers to spring, while relegating pileated woodpeckers to winter. I was startled to find cedar waxwings in the summer section since they winter in our region. Yow quickly admits he’s never even seen them on his wooded tract – he has no cedar trees, and his feeders don’t entice these berry-eaters. He goes on to recount a sighting on the university campus in nearby Athens, especially amusing given the bird’s tendency to become intoxicated after ingesting overripe, fermented fruit. Once I was absorbed in his stories, all was forgiven. Who could resist the urge to write about such a glorious bird?

Placing the woodthrush in the summer section was evocative for me. Despite being associated with large tracts of mature hardwood forest, a woodthrush sings consistently through the early summer in the patch of woods behind my sister’s house in Charlotte. In the Uwharries, I hear them from the screened porch at my parents’ house only during spring migration. Perhaps they have the option of moving deeper into the forest during the height of breeding season. It’s a pity; their song is captivating. Whenever I hear it, the cares of the world fall away, and I am peaceful in the moment. Thanks to John Yow, I am also reminded of Thoreau’s far more eloquent description: “Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”

On frigid winter days, turn your recliner toward the window and cozy up with a blanket. Keep a pair of binoculars, a favorite beverage, and a copy of The Armchair Birder by your side. Rouse yourself only to refill the feeders.

The Armchair Birder is available through UNC Press.

Liz Odum shares photos from around her bird feeders in Chester County, S.C., south of Charlotte below. Liz is partial to the nuthatch, “It sounds like a squeaking rubber duck and is fun to watch.” She also has hawks that visit. She has both the Cooper’s hawk and the smaller, sharp-shinned hawk causing commotions around her feeders.

Birds outside your window