Podcast | A reluctant birder dabbles in an exploding pandemic pastime

Ted Alvarez thinks birding is boring. But with so much interest in it now, he decides to investigate.

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Crows fly past the moon

A flock of crows fly past the disk of the moon Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. (AP Photo)

The Pacific Northwest is a haven for thousands of bird species, from sage grouse to bald eagles to common finches. Many impressive migrations take place every year. And the enthusiasts who love spotting all these birds can be very enthusiastic.

Birding draws obsessives; there are bird societies, events and even competitions. But you know who really doesn’t care about all this? Crosscut Escapes host Ted  Alvarez. He’d rather spot any other kind of wildlife than a bird. A bird is a disappointment, in his book. 

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Yet in the past year, birding has exploded as a pastime. A pandemic that forced us to interact with nature first in our homes, and then in the outdoors, meant we all started watching the birds in our backyards and then on the trail, very, very closely.

In this episode of Crosscut Escapes, Alvarez puts aside his skepticism to hear from conservationists and researchers who help open his eyes to the bustling avian world all around us.



Transcripts for Crosscut Escapes are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

[00:00:00] Anonymous: Crosscut Escapes is sponsored by John S. Adams, CFP, and UBS.

[00:00:09] Kaeli Swift: The advantage to birds over charismatic megafauna is it's a lot of work to go see those animals. And so it's really rewarding when you do, but it's not very accessible and it may not be in any way accessible to large swaths of the population, but birds are amazing. Cause you put out a bird feeder and pretty much irrespective of where you live, and something will come to it. You will get a bird.

[00:00:48] Ted Alvarez: Hello listeners. Welcome to Crosscut Escapes. I'm your host, Ted Alvarez. And that was avian ecologist Kaeli Swift. We'll hear more from her later. But first, I've got a little bit of a confession to make. I don't really like birds.

Okay. So that's not exactly fair. Raptors are cool. Ostriches are cool. Penguins are pretty cool. But the unidentifiable songbirds you see in shades of uninspiring colors, meh. I'm exaggerating, of course. As an adult human person, I understand that every animal has something fascinating about them. And that includes the less distinguished members on the avian spectrum.

But perhaps I'm scarred from the few times I've spent in prime charismatic megafauna locales, places where I should see bears or moose or caribou, and end up coming away with little to show for it other than little brown birds. But before I dismiss something entirely, whether that's a book recommendation or an entire class of animals, I think it's better to learn about it.

And the past year has been an exceptional time to learn about the birds of the Pacific Northwest. A pandemic that forced us to interact with nature first in our homes, and then in the outdoors, meant we all started watching the birds in our backyards and then on the trail, very, very closely. Birding exploded as a pastime. 

[00:02:10] Anonymous: Bird watching is up in the pandemic. Sales for bird seeds and feeders are up and so are online data entries for bird spotting.

[00:02:17] Ted Alvarez: Even without a pandemic, the Pacific Northwest and Washington are great places to be a birder. But don't take it from a bird skeptic like me.

[00:02:25] Trina Bayard: I’m Dr. Trina Bayard, I'm director of bird conservation for Audubon Washington. My job is to lead our conservation programs for birds across the state.

You know, we have somewhere around 350 species that regularly occur up to 500 that occur at least somewhat regularly.

[00:02:45] Ted Alvarez: Many people couldn't keep track of that many bird species. I sure can't. But bird people aren't most people. They can capture all that in often intimidating detail.

[00:02:55] Trina Bayard: You've got the songbirds and the raptors and the grassland birds and the waterfowl.

Sage thrasher. Sage grouse. The western meadowlark. The ferruginous hawk. Warblers, woodpeckers, owls. Swainson's thrush and Pacific wren. The marbled murrelet and the spotted owl. Snowy plovers. Tufted puffins. Common murres. Rhinoceros auklets. One of my favorite birds, I think, is the pigeon guillemot I don't, not sure if you've heard of it.

[00:03:26] Ted Alvarez: I had not heard of the pigeon guillemot. Well, I might've seen it on a plaque once, but that's it.

[00:03:32] Trina Bayard: One of the reasons I love the pigeon guillemot is it's so accessible. It's, it's one of the seabird species that actually occurs closer to shore compared to some of the others. And it's there year-round. So, you know, in the breeding season, they are very striking in appearance.

They're black. They have these white wing patches and bright red orange-ish legs. And, um, you know, it's the kind of bird you can see from the ferry dock or when you're walking down the beach and especially in places where there's a lot of bluffs, like Whidbey Island or out on the peninsula and they'll be out there making their vocalizations and bringing food to their young.

And I just love the pigeon guillemot for kind of how easy it makes it for us to interact with it and just sort of watch it and be aware of, of what it's up to.

[00:04:28] Ted Alvarez: Being aware of the world around us. That's something birds have done for so many this year. Across the country, sales of bird feeders have gone up 50% and Audubon saw users of its birding app nearly double in 2020. Early data indicates that that figure is going to grow by the end of the year.

So we're all watching birds except for me. But I should be because I love making memories outside and birds are great for that. With lots of animal sightings, we're talking about a visual glimpse and maybe a noise or two, if you're lucky or close enough, but most birds almost always sing, adding a distinctive aural accompaniment to wilderness. When combined with the sighting and the particular scent of where you are, the pine of the forest or the crisp brine of the seashore, birds can help flesh out memories in three dimensions and help you retain those memories for longer.

[00:05:16] Trina Bayard: I grew up in the Seattle area. You know, at the time I didn't grow up paying attention to birds at all, really. We just spent a lot of time outside. And in fact, a lot of my memories are, you know, poking around in tide pools or hiking or camping. And it wasn't until later when I learned some of the birds that I sort of connected them back to like, oh yeah, this is the bird we always heard when we camped at Deception Pass or something like that.

Similarly, you know, I had grandparents in Florida and, you know, I didn't know what the birds were when we visited them. But now when I hear, you know, a Cardinal singing or a Carolina Wren, it brings me back to those childhood memories visiting them. So that's the cool thing about birds. They can, they can connect us to memories and moments in ways that if you're not paying attention or not conscious of it, it's, it's like you don't even quite know it's happening.

And then, once that consciousness comes through of, of the birds around you, you can really deepen those memories.

[00:06:25] Ted Alvarez: When Trina said this, it made me want to cycle back through some of my memories. One of them was on a trek searching for grizzlies above treeline in the North Cascades. I remember how the chatter of the pine siskin was the soundtrack to the whole trip. That's one of those drab little guys I'd never know the name of if a scientist hadn't told me. There were no grizzlies to be had the entire time, but even playing a clip of it now, conjures images of steep mountain slopes, reddened by autumn blueberry bushes.

It also helps me remember the pungent funk of the rotting mixture scientists use to bait hair traps up high in hidden valleys. I also remember this one cloudy, rainy trip to the Olympic Coast, where my cousin spotted a bald eagle about the size of a Labrador about 25 feet up in a tree. He walked right up to it and it unleashed a shrill cry before firing a jet of white droppings at him, missing him by a few inches.

We laughed for hours. But real live birding, you know, with binoculars and guidebooks, well, more likely apps these days, that still feels like an intimidating endeavor, like deciding you're going to get into Star Wars in middle age. Where to begin?

[00:07:33] Trina Bayard: I think there's actually all kinds of ways to interact with birds and to sort of have a relationship with birds in your life.

There are people for whom, you know, the big allure of birds is creating the list. It’s seeing the new species, it's checking off, um, that, that bird you've never seen before. And that, that can be a really compelling reason why people get into birding, right? There's the competitive aspect to it. There's a learning and a challenge aspect.

[00:08:05] Ted Alvarez: Any pastime can quickly become an obsession and people who like birding really get into it.

[00:08:12] Anonymous: I'm Arjan Dwarshuis, I’m from the Netherlands, and I'm the world record holder in bird watching.

[00:08:17] Ted Alvarez: There’s the New York Birdathon, the Young Birder of the Year award. And of course the big one, the World Series of Birding.

[00:08:24] Anonymous: Um, welcome everyone, uh, to the virtual award ceremony for the 38th annual world series of birding.

[00:08:32] Ted Alvarez: There's even this concept called the Big Year where people try to break their personal record of seeing as many bird species as possible in a given area in a single year. The record for North America is 840 species. The record for the entire world is over 6,000.

[00:08:47] Anonymous: And in the end, I saw 6,856 species that year.

[00:08:53] Trina Bayard: There are different aspects of birding that, that appeal to different people and different personalities.

So, you know, if anything, I would love to dispel the idea that to be a birder, you have to know all the species and be able to identify them, have a big, long list of birds that you've seen. You know, we talked about all the people turning to birding during the pandemic. And I think that speaks to one of the things I would also bring up with a bird skeptic person, which is the mental and emotional wellbeing that comes along with birding, right? Just like standing at the beach, watching the ocean waves roll in and how that can be very grounding and like, oh, look, the world is still, you know, nature is still happening. Even if life is upheaval around me, right. It can be the same thing with birds.

They're going about their annual cycle and their activities sort of, regardless of what's happening in our personal lives.

[00:09:53] Ted Alvarez: I took Trina's advice to heart. And instead of saddling up with binocs and a copy of Peterson Field Guides Birds of Western North America, I decided to pay closer attention to the avian life around me on a trip to the Washington coast. There, Trina said my odds of seeing a pigeon guillemot or a snowy plover would be pretty good.

I didn't bring a guidebook, but I did look up some pictures on my phone. When I got there, though, I encountered fog so thick I could barely tell the difference between the sand and cloud. Howling wind grounded everything except for a pack of seagulls, determined to pick at a giant rotting fish. I did see an eagle standing sentry on a skeletal dead tree, and I knew better than to get too close, but then I remembered something else Trina said and realized that maybe I'd gone too far.

Maybe I was working too hard to turn myself into an avian enthusiast.

[00:10:41] Trina Bayard: I, I switched out my hour long commute for a morning walk, and I have been doing this morning walk every day for, you know, 400 days now. And what I'm finding is that I'm getting to know those more local, common birds in a way that I just, even as a birder myself, I had no sort of awareness of, or, or fully appreciated before the pandemic.

And what happens is when you're out in your neighborhood day after day, sort of paying attention to the comings and goings of birds, you know, across different seasons. You start to realize that there, there are a lot of birds and different birds coming through and that the species do change season by season.

[00:11:30] Ted Alvarez: So I turned to my backyard where I have a healthy population of bright, beautiful glamorous crows. More on them after the break.

[00:11:53] Anonymous: The Arbor Group at UBS has a straightforward mission. To help you make the world a better place. Through personal financial planning and sustainable investment management, the Arbor Group works with each of their clients to pursue that client's specific goals. Learn more by visiting ubs.com/team/thearborgroup.

[00:12:20] Ted Alvarez: Before the break, we were talking about how at my house, I mostly see crows. In fact, they like to hang out on my roof, tap, tap, tapping, and cawing, quorking, or otherwise making a racket. Usually when I'm trying to sleep early in the morning or write or think or record a podcast.

What are you doing here, crows? Get out of here. Get out of the garden.

But maybe I should be paying more attention to them. Yes. I see them every day and they're singing voices aren't the best, but I've learned that what makes crows special is on the inside, specifically inside their heads. Crows, you see, are kind of the geniuses of the bird world.

[00:12:58] Kaeli Swift: Crows can solve problems that we as human beings, can't start solving until we're eight.

I mean, that's pretty amazing.

[00:13:06] Ted Alvarez: This is Kaeli Swift, who you heard at the top of the episode. She's an avian ecologist currently working on a postdoc at the University of Washington. And if you want to know anything about crows, she's the person to ask. One of Kaeli’s big areas of study concerns corvids, crows, ravens, jays.

You might've heard that crows and ravens are mischievous, playful animals. And you might know that they're extremely intelligent, but the range of these intelligent behaviors is astounding. Some crows can solve puzzles on the first try that children younger than eight struggle to solve. One involved raising the water level in a container with stones. To do this, a crow had to recognize the difference between floating objects and sinking ones. They can do this at six months old.

[00:13:49] Kaeli Swift: And that doesn't then make crows better than other birds. We don't, we want to be careful not to put them in that value system. But I mean, come on. It is really neat and maybe a little intimidating because they're that good at stuff when their brains are, they're the size of a walnut, they're really small.

And so the fact that they pack that kind of processing power in there is something I think that we can unabashedly be very enthusiastic and delighted by.

We’re realizing that these birds share much more in common in terms of their brains with primates than we had previously understood, which is really amazing given how different, in some ways, the architecture of the avian brain is, and the fact that they diverge, you know, in evolution, 300 million years ago. So that we see these incredible connections and parallels is really fascinating.

So one of my favorite things about crows is that these are animals that play well into adulthood. And the reason they're able to do that is they have so many, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest and in places like Seattle and Portland, they have so many resources. And because they live in these social groups, they have space to just kind of mess around during the day.

Right. A lot of other animals are just like, there's no time for that. They're surviving and there's eating and there's not getting eaten. And that's it.

And crows, because they, they live in these extended social networks because they're so intelligent. And because they have so many resources, all of those things come together to afford them free time to kind of entertain themselves. And so I saw really fun moments of curiosity and play among the crows. And I think that's probably the most common and most sort of whimsical and delightful way that I saw their intelligence really manifest.

[00:15:54] Ted Alvarez: Another way crows show how deep their societal intelligence goes is when one of them dies. This is one of the major things Kaeli studies.

[00:16:02] Kaeli Swift: Human beings have been aware that these birds are aware when one of them dies for a long time. And the way that that typically manifests is they'll, they'll come in. They'll alarm call they'll gather in a big group.

Sometimes people report that they're then very silent for long periods of time. Um, other people have reported seeing these birds place objects on top of the body, lots of different things like that. And in many ways, those responses mirror the responses we often see among mammals, which also share really strong responses like, um, primates, many species of primates respond really strongly, uh, dolphins, whales, elephants, et cetera.

[00:16:41] Ted Alvarez: So Kaeli wanted to know, okay, why are crows reacting so strongly to another crow's death? Is it grief? Or is it something else? She couldn't really ask a crow if it was sad, but one hypothesis she ended up testing in downtown Seattle was the idea that maybe it's a way for them to learn about danger.

[00:16:59] Kaeli Swift: And I looked at two specific cues, the place. So are they like, oh, no, a crow died right there. That place is probably pretty shady. We should like be careful when we're there. Uh, and could they learn about new predators? So if they see a person holding a dead crow, even if they didn't see that person interact with the crow, kill it, hurt it. If they simply see them handling it, is that enough to make a connection because we knew before my studies that crows can recognize faces and they can do so in a variety of contexts.

But we didn't know if this was one of those contexts. And so I did studies all over the city of Seattle. We used masked people. And the reason for that is it helped me sort of maintain the face over, it was a very long-term study. And so it helped me maintain the face. Even if the people helping me out to carry out these experiments, weren't always available.

It didn't matter. I could keep the face, if I used these face masks. And we found that indeed, crows did cue into these dead crows is as ways to evaluate danger. And so we saw shifts in their behavior in the places where these funerals happened. And we saw them learn and remember the faces of people they had seen handling these dead crows.

[00:18:11] Ted Alvarez: OF course, groups of people walking around downtown Seattle in creepy, realistic face masks with the limp bodies of dead crows in their hands did generate some extra attention.

[00:18:21] Kaeli Swift: Because they're so realistic. It really looks like you just cut someone's face off and are wearing it, like, you know, Hannibal style. And that's the point, but it's also really creepy. And fortunately the, you know, the birds don't have any context for that being a bad thing. So they're not inherently scared by it. We, we did controls to validate that. But people, people don't like it very much.

So we very quickly. Uh, I had to have all my volunteers whenever they did these studies wear these big signs around their necks that said, you know, UW Crow Study.

[00:19:07] Ted Alvarez: By now, I'm convinced crows are worth watching. I'd like to get to know the bird brain geniuses in my backyard.

[00:19:14] Kaeli Swift: This is an incredible opportunity. You have one of the smartest animals on the planet. Just hanging out in your backyard. Like it's no big deal. And there is, there's an amazing opportunity there to, to see really interesting things.

[00:19:26] Ted Alvarez: But walking around with a serial killer mask and a dead crow, that doesn't seem like a good way to make friends with them or my neighbors.

So I asked Kaeli what I should do instead.

[00:19:37] Kaeli Swift: So the way that crow life history works is they reach sexual maturity anywhere between two or three years old. Generally speaking, they form a permanent pair bond. So in other words, they mate for life and as a pair, they'll establish a territory and they'll stay on that territory year round.

And then the other feature of crows is that they live a long time, you know, living between 10 and 17 years old, isn't all that unusual. So, what that means is, you know, that the two crows that you see outside of your house every day, sitting on that telephone wire or, or whatever it is, are probably the same two crows every day.

And that might be true for more than a decade. And so if you invest in really paying attention to these birds, you're not just learning about crows in a sort of general way, but you're really learning about individuals. And there's a lot of opportunity to get to know them in these really intimate ways. And because crows learn people. They'll also reciprocate that if you give them that opportunity.

So one of the best ways to kind of start watching crows in a more intimate way is to feed them. I recommend just a little bit of like pet kibble. That's a really good food source. They love peanuts. Um, but if you have any neighbors with really severe peanut allergies, the one problem is they'll go and they'll hide them in the garden and in the gutters.

And so that could be a problem. So pet kibble is a little bit of a safer bet. And then once you know that you have them coming around really regularly, the first thing I would look for is play. I mean, to me, that's like just the most delightful thing to watch. And then if you really want to go for it, there are contraptions that you could make that might challenge them to get food.

Uh, and so those kinds of things, you know, if you have the right bird and it's highly motivated, you could get them to do some interesting things and, you know, make little puzzle feeders or that kind of thing for them.

[00:21:35] Ted Alvarez: So thanks to these wonderful conversations I've had with Kaeli and Trina, I did start watching my resident crows a bit more closely. I think there's a family of about four or five, and I still get annoyed when Gomez and Morticia, that's what I'm calling the parents, start making noises at 4:30 AM, but it's been fascinating to watch Pugsley and Wednesday, and there might be another one, I'm not exactly sure.

That tap, tap tapping on my porch, roof and awning above my office window. I learned that was them getting up their courage to jump into the void, sort of tap dancing nervously the way you might from the top of a high dive. Adorable, right?

Anytime I'm out in the field this year. I still don't think I'm very likely to bring a field guide or binoculars. Maybe I'll get an app, but I do know that if I pay attention to the feathered friends all around me, listen to their songs and watch the patterns they trace across the sky or tap into my roof. Well, I know that they'll bring me closer to the wild I care so much about it. Yeah, and I think I kind of love them for that.

That's it for this week's episode. Many thanks to Kaeli Swift and Trina Bayard. This episode was produced by me and Sara Bernard. Our executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Our theme music and other sounds are by the Explorist. You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes. And if you like the show, please review us. It helps other people find us. Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media. I'm Ted Alvarez, and we'll be back with another episode next week.


About the Hosts

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.