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Essay

What Bird Watching Taught Me About Life + Work

by Grace Bonney

Eastern Phoebe Painting by Shauna Finn Art at Etsy

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to slow down, be present, and really take in all of the complicated feelings that arise when you close a very big chapter in your life. I’ve been through some major life changes over the past 10 years and through each of them, I rushed. I put my head down, worked through them like a freight train, and never really let myself feel any of them. But with the closing of Design*Sponge, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to pay attention to all of the things I was experiencing and remember them. And if one thing has helped me do that this time around it’s the family of Eastern Phoebe birds that have taken up residence on our patio fan.

It wasn’t long ago that I read an article by Emily Busse about how bird watching helped ease her anxiety. I made a mental note and started taking more time to pay attention to the birds in our yard. Then one day, Julia and I noticed mud splatters above our (unused) fan on the patio. A bird was building a nest on the fan blade. I was terrified, but after some quick research I realized it was fairly common. And as long as we didn’t use the fan (I used duct tape to hold it in place so it wouldn’t spin in the wind), the family and their nest would be fine.

Eastern Phoebe Watercolor by Joy Neasley Studios at Etsy

Over the past two months, I’ve gone from being a casual bird watcher to an avid documenter of nest behavior (I even registered our nest with the Cornell Nest Watch program). I like to think of myself as the official president of the Eastern Phoebe bird fan club. I’ve watched this tiny family of birds lay an entire clutch of eggs that failed to hatch, try again, and now succeed with a beautiful new nestling that I’ve been keeping a close eye on with not one but two pairs of bird binoculars (one records video, one does not). As I write this, I’m taking breaks to pick up my binoculars and watch the parents feed the baby an assortment of freshly-caught flies, moths, and other winged insects. This simple act of slowing down, paying close attention, and taking notes has helped me stay in touch with my feelings and a greater sense of overall perspective. So here’s what I’ve learned from these beautiful birds about life and work so far:

  1. Have Hope: When I first started watching the Phoebes make their nest on the fan blade, I thought for sure they were goners. Not because we were going to ever turn the fan on, but because it seemed like one good gust of wind would send their nest and the eggs flying off the blade. And while I researched nest locations and learned this spot wasn’t impossible to make work, I had my doubts. But watching them survive two rounds of egg laying and multiple storms, I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, hope for the best, and see what happens.
  2. Not Everything Will Work Out, But That’s Okay: Our Phoebes had a first clutch of four eggs after they made their nest. I documented them for the nest program and then waited… and waited. But nothing happened. It seemed like they should have hatched after a few weeks, so I checked again (consulting the Cornell Nest Watch Guidelines) and there were… different eggs. They were still Phoebe eggs, but there were only three now, and they were smaller. I asked some local bird experts for their opinion and they told me that most likely the first clutch of eggs wasn’t viable, so they laid new ones. Nature knows when things aren’t working out and just goes ahead and tries again. With cautious optimism I waited and now… they have a baby nestling! I don’t think all three eggs survived to hatch, but I’ve been watching their first nestling bob around the nest and find its voice and it’s been such a sweet reminder that life always finds a way, it just may not be how you planned it in the beginning.

Images above, clockwise from top left: The Phoebe nest on our fan blade. The second clutch of eggs she laid. The baby nestling poking its soft little head and beak out of the nest.

  1. Pay Attention to the Small Things: When I first started watching the nest, I learned how to recognize the Phoebe’s calls (I watched so many Phoebe videos on Youtube) and tell them apart from other birds’ calls. That little lesson led to me researching other local bird calls and now when I wake up in the morning, I don’t start my day with political podcasts. Instead, I listen to bird calls from my bathroom window and try to see which of the birds I can identify and see. Then I think about how each of them spends their day. A few days into this new routine, I found myself happier, calmer, and less distracted by devices and online drama. Just listening to these small chirps, chips, and cheeps made me so thankful for tiny sounds and tiny moments of joy. I had been chasing these small moments of joy in the form of comments and “likes” on social media, but I actually found them in nature instead.
  2. Become a Beginner Again: When I first started watching birds, I knew nothing about them. Like, nothing. I couldn’t tell a Chickadee from a Phoebe or a Starling from a Warbler. I didn’t know the terms for anything or how to tell one call from another. So I started learning again, from the bottom. I ordered a bunch of books, read up, watched a million videos on Youtube and found myself in that giddy early stage of learning again where everything is new and everything is exciting and totally foreign to you. I forgot how FUN that is. It’s so easy to get settled in our identities after doing the same thing for 15 years. I thought of myself as a blogger who liked the internet and TV and being indoors most of the day. And while that’s still pretty true, getting into bird watching has reminded me that I can (and do) have new interests that I wouldn’t have expected at first. And learning something new about myself has made me feel a different type of confidence I didn’t know I needed.
  3. Asking for and Accepting Help is Part of Life: Watching this tiny nestling Phoebe be so helpless in its nest has been an important reminder that there will be stages of every being’s life where you need to rely, lean, or depend on someone or something else. I see how the parent Phoebes dote on their nestling and feed it, fluff it, and nudge it. They even carry its waste out of the nest multiple times a day (see 2:02) to keep things clean. Humans can do the same for each other and it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of, on both ends of the equation. Taking care and giving help to someone— or being on the receiving end of that— is such a gift and is a beautiful example of how giving and accepting help when we need it is part of life.

No matter where you live, there is usually some type of bird life to watch, admire and learn from. I can’t recommend this hobby more highly. It’s relatively low cost (you can find used binoculars online for a good price, and many new ones at a low price, too) and it gives back so much in terms of life lessons and serenity. If you want to get started, here are some of the resources I’ve been using to learn more. Happy bird watching! xo, Grace

  • Cornell Nest Watch
  • Audubon Society (their app is amazing for identification)
  • All About Birds (a great place to start!)
  • American Birding Group (find fellow bird watchers near you)

 

Dramatic Phoebe on the sofa by Vivienne Strauss at Etsy

 

 

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Comments

  • I love this! I’ve had similar experiences and I love becoming obsessed with a tiny corner of the world and its vulnerable yet resilient inhabitants. If you read Jenny Odell’s book about resisting the attention economy you will find a kindred spirit in birding. She animates the concept of bio-regionalism, quoting Robin Kimmerer (love her work) and others.

  • How sweet! I loved reading about your bird watching journey and look forward to updates.

    As a NEW YORKER(tm) since my early childhood, I too have identified as a largely indoorsy, city-dwelling creature. I spent my summers in the country with family where I was largely indoorsy due to my phobia of bees and other bugs.

    Only recently after going on a roadtrip did I begin to discover that I don’t totally hate hiking, and that I am more outdoorsy than I thought (though still definitely terrified of most critters). I’ve always loved being by the ocean (note: limited bugs), and more and more am finding myself wanting to live somewhere quieter and closer to nature. I never thought I would say that.

    • Jo

      I hear you. I didn’t think of myself as outdoorsy for a long time. I was quite the opposite. I’m still not 100% outdoorsy, but I appreciate time outside much more now than I ever did before.

      Grace

  • Yes to bird watching! My husband and I have recently gotten into bird watching and it’s such a wonderful, calming experience. We live near a nature centre so we get the trickle over of the migrating birds. It inspired us to start using my grandpa’s binoculars and pay closer attention to the birds in our yard. It’s a welcome change from being glued to a computer or phone for work. We love that it helps you become more in tune with your natural surrounding and can tell you so much about the world. Plus the calming effects of it are so, so nice. I really think there’s something so wonderful about sitting and watching a bird go about it’s daily business. It’s fun to see what birds visit your feeder at different times of year, or just spot a new bird when you’re driving or in a new environment (we really love using the Cornell app for identification!). Next up I think we’ll start studying butterflies. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, it’s nice to know there are other out there finding ways to achieve mental clarity through nature.

  • I’ve been birding for over 5 years now. It’s seriously the most enriching and soul-nourishing hobby. It’s crazy to notice the knowledge I gain and build upon each year. The hobby knows no limits too. There’s so much to learn. If you become an expert in your location, there’s always other locations to visit. Traveling for birding – that’s a whole other thing to get into!

  • This was so lovely. My husband’s father is an avid bird watcher and he has gotten our 7 year old daughter into it as well. It’s been so fun to see her excitement and amazement in identifying birds and learning about their habits. As if the unadulterated joy of a child wasn’t enough, this post has absolutely inspired me to join in the fun! Thank you!

  • This is so amazing!! We are avid bird watchers too and when I’m away too long from watching our backyard birds, I do feel anxious. We take Tom to the annual Eagle count each year, at the local state park. It’s such a good time where your sole purpose is to just count birds. It’s so simple, yet so satisfying. It makes so much sense that you are so into nests and birds- they are like little architects. And the Bower Bird is a total interior designer!

  • Absolutely beautiful article. I researched the benefits of birdwatching and wrote a paper on the topic. It’s great to see more and more people dedicating some of their time to this hobby.
    Sara

  • when i turned 40 i made it a year of discovering new things and birdwatching was one of them! so happy you have discovered this fun hobby… isn’t life great that it can keep surprising you in the best ways?

  • Thankyou for sharing your wonderful experiences. I discovered bird watching by accident. In the Spring of 2015, I had bought my first dslr camera and decided to look around for suitable subjects to try my hand at photography. I found that birds fulfilled my need in very rewarding ways. They are so colorful, come in so many shapes and sizes, have the sweetest of calls and -heres the best part-are rarely still! Something very important for a budding photographer to test his/her reflexes on.

  • Lovely, lovely piece, Grace! (how I will miss your voice on the internet – please keep writing somewhere, somehow and let us know how to find your words when you do.)
    I picked up bird watching several decades ago and it was like discovering a parallel universe that I had been blind to all my life. Sadly, in the years since I’ve let myself get blown off course.
    Your words are inspiration to get outside and open my eyes and ears again.
    Thank you!

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