Social media stars used to sport tans and perfect teeth. Now they have feathers and claws. Tibbs Jenkins reveals how the past year has turned thousands of us into accidental birdwatchers
Of all the ways lockdown changed my life, the one I didn’t expect was a newfound passion for bird watching. Yes, 2020 was the year when ‘birding’, to those in the know, got cool. When we millennials found ourselves stripped of our social lives, we began to notice the life right outside our windows. The conversation between me and my friends was no longer about who was dating who, but who was in an unexpectedly intense relationship with a magpie.
And, rather as you’d expect, social media is buzzing with this latest passion. Birds are the new cats when it comes to posting adorable animal videos. For more serious-minded birders there’s @best_birds_of_ig and @melissagroo, with fact-filled captions and professional-looking images.
If you want to know what you’ve spotted then head to Facebook groups such as UK Bird Identification and Birding UK and Ireland. My engagement with this online community means I now know that I’ve been wrongly identifying pine siskins as sparrows for years – the shame! – and that not many other birders are excited by pigeons, although they might get a little gooey over a dove.
My birding journey began last November when I put up my first bird feeder in the garden. Each morning I’d wait, gazing out of my window, yet not one feathered friend would show up. I thought I’d launched it in the wrong season. You can imagine my envy when I spied, on Instagram, that an old colleague had put one up in her garden in Crystal Palace and was entertaining robins barely 24 hours later. Was I doing something wrong?
But then… sheer joy! One glorious morning this spring, I spied a wood pigeon trying to eat from my feeder (impossible, by the way, because mine was designed for small birds). I ran into the garden to sprinkle some seed for him on the wall and I’m certain he spread the word because, soon after, others began to appear. I saw blackbirds (which turned out to be starlings) and my very own robin. With each new arrival, I’d reach for my phone and take a photo to share with my birder friends.
The wood pigeon still visits at least five times a day. I’ve affectionately called him Pidge and I’ve fallen a little bit in love with him. The pleasure I get when I hear the flutter of his wings as he lands on my wall and cocks his head quizzically, eyeing me up through the window and patiently waiting for me to distribute his food, is almost embarrassing.
One lucky friend of mine filmed a man cycling through London’s Hyde Park with one pigeon on his shoulder, another on his hand and a seagull on his head. The video has now been viewed close to 30,000 times on @pigeonsdoingthings.
Talking of Hyde Park, head to the ‘parrot tree’, about halfway down the Serpentine just before the Henry Moore arch, and you’ll find gaggles of tourists cooing at the green parakeets. Many new birders cite these exotic ring-necked creatures as their ‘spark bird’ – the one that first piqued their interest. Their presence in London is shrouded with mystery; some claim that a pair were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the 60s, others that they escaped from Ealing Studios during the filming of The African Queen in 1951. More probable is that their presence is a result both of releases and escapes during the 60s, when birds as pets were as popular as cats and dogs.
The combination of pandemic and technology has shot birding into the stratosphere, particularly for millennials and Gen-Zers. Especially popular is the mobile phone app eBird, now the largest worldwide database of bird sightings with over 800,000 users. The app makes the hobby feel like both a game and a community – users can follow each other’s checklists as they log their discoveries, tap into sightings and be ranked against other users for their bird tallies. Especially exciting is when someone sees a ‘lifer’ – the first time they’ve spied a particular species. Users can share this information, alerting other members and causing those near the spotting to whiz to the location in the hope of also getting lucky. Other popular apps to identify your bird are Merlin and Smart Bird ID: simply upload an image or a phone recording of their song and it will tell you the species.
Meanwhile, the number of people using the RSPB’s online bird identification tool shot up by 95 per cent in 2020. Many birders logged their observations in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch 2021 – an annual survey held over three days, where people across Britain record and submit the birds they see in their gardens. For 40 years the survey has provided valuable data on the UK bird population. This year’s survey was the biggest ever, with more than a million people taking part. There was a notable increase in young birders – three times more 18- to 29-year-olds took part than usual, and twice as many 30- to 34-year-olds – as well as an increase in people living in urban areas.
But will this new generation of birders lose interest as we slowly emerge from lockdown? I can speak only for myself, but… not a chance. I’m now a fully fledged bird nerd. At a recent lunch in Suffolk, I cut my host’s witty story short in the excitement of spotting a long-tailed tit. And at the pub yesterday I lost the thread of a conversation when I spotted a birdhouse across the road. Who knows, maybe I’ll take binoculars with me the next time I go away. Forget Ibiza, it’s the orange-breasted green pigeon of Goa I yearn to see.
For now, though, I’ll head to East London. A WhatsApp group I’m in recently discussed meeting for beers and perhaps a sneaky swim on Hackney Marshes. I was both surprised and pleased by the response from one of the group, who said there was no need to bring your swimmers: ‘Not only is it the most polluted river in London,’ she wrote, but it’s ‘also not good for the kingfishers and owls that nest there.’ A good sign, especially as birding is proven to be good for you: researchers at the University of Frankfurt found that being around birds can bring people as much happiness as a pay rise. So cherish those chaffinches, admire those robins – and love your pigeon.
Lastly, here’s a tip I got off Instagram: add rolled oats to any cold fat left in your frying pan, then feed it to the birds – you won’t clog the drains, and the birds will love it. Ottolenghi, eat your heart out.
How to create a gourmet garden
Foods guaranteed to have birds flocking to your feeder
Best offered in a tray feeder to attract flocks of house sparrows, dunnocks, finches, reed buntings and collared doves, millet is one of the most popular and least expensive ways to feed birds.
Both in and out of the husk, sunflower seeds are guaranteed to attract tits and greenfinches when served in tube feeders. Oil content in black sunflower seeds is a lot higher – a more nutritious option for birds than striped ones.
High in fat and oil content, these small black seeds are favoured by goldfinches and siskins. To allow these tiny birds to feed without disruption from larger species, make sure to serve nyjer seeds in a tube or mesh feeder hung away from other feeders.
Relished by robins, dunnocks and even wrens, granulated peanuts are an excellent source of energy and calories, especially in winter months. Remember never to use salted or dry roasted nuts.
A more expensive option, and the food of choice for robins and blue tits. They’re high in calories and protein, but can also carry salmonella, so they are best served in small quantities in a dedicated feeder.
Feeders: Our top pecks
Not only do these look gorgeous, but they’ll also help your feathered friends to thrive.
Additional reporting by Charlotte Vossen