Birdsong and Birdwatching: The Great De-stressors in your Backyard

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“Hope is a thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

and never stops at all…”

                                                                            —Emily Dickenson

Many residents and regular visitors were dismayed when beaches and parks were closed throughout the Santa Monica Mountains as a safety precaution during the Coronavirus Pandemic. 

Favorite trails remain off limits to hikers this spring, wildflowers are blooming unseen by human eyes, and the local wildlife has the parks to itself, but one much-loved harbinger of spring makes itself as much at home in backyards as it does in wilderness: the Santa Monica Mountains varied, colorful, and charismatic native birds.

Recent research has revealed that taking a break to watch or even just listen to birds can help calm anxiety and improve mental health. 

Three combined studies conducted by the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the University of Queensland in 2017, found that people living in neighborhoods with more birds, shrubs and trees are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.

Right now, gardens throughout the Santa Monica Mountains are filled with birds and birdsong, as resident species begin nesting and migrants pass through on their way north.  

Listen for the sad, muffled call that gives the mourning dove its name in the early evening, the high pitched call of the Nuttall’s woodpecker, interspersed with  rapid-fire drilling from the treetops. The oak titmouse informs the world that it is “sweet, sweet, sweet,’ (or a cheat, cheat, cheat), the canyon wren’s distinctive descending scale is a much-loved part of the soundtrack of spring in Topanga, even if the shy singer is rarely seen.

A flash of blue in the garden may be the fearless and too-smart-for-its-own good scrub jay, or the smaller, more vividly colored Western bluebird. A glimpse of bright yellow may be a lesser goldfinch or the spectacularly beautiful male hooded oriole, looking for a nesting spot in a neighborhood palm tree.

Topanga’s naturalized parrot population adds a raucous and colorful note to the soundtrack of spring. The most common species is the nanday conure, also known as a black-hooded parakeet, but Amazon parrots are also at home in the canyon.

Raptors are also backyard birds. The unseen presence of a hawk or owl is often betrayed by watchful crows, who will mob predators and chase them from their territory. Great horned owls mate in late winter and are already raising nestlings. Listen for their hooted conversation at dusk or before dawn.

“I think [birdwatching] is a great way to relieve stress,” Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at New York University’s School of Public Health, stated in a recent interview with the Audubon Society. “We should encourage these healthy coping mechanisms, but it’s also good for people to maintain their enjoyable pastimes to the greatest extent possible.”

 Adding a bird bath to the garden can be a simple way of getting a closer look at local birds. A terra cotta plant pot saucer makes a good bird bath. Even a large pie tin or old frying pan can work—add some gravel or small pebbles to the bottom of slippery surfaces. Make sure the birdbath is off the ground and safe from predators like cats. It’s a good idea to change the water daily.

Learning to identify birds by name and sound can help create a sense of connection. It’s also a great citizen science project for families stuck at home during the pandemic. 

iNaturalist.com, Cornell University’s Bird Lab, https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home, and the Audubon Society’s free bird app are all great resources to help identify backyard birds  (https://www.audubon.org/app). The National Park Service offers a complete list of birds of the Santa Monica Mountains: https://www.nps.gov/samo/learn/nature/upload/SAMO_Birds.pdf

Just seeing a flash of wild wings through the window or hearing a snatch of spring birdsong can be enough to lift the spirits. 

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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