This yard work needs binoculars
(published 3-18-04)

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of birding: at home and away from home--or "yard birding" and "field birding." I do both, but in recent years, I've done a lot more watching from my back patio than from the trails of our local forest preserves. Having young kids--one of whom answers to the nickname, "Jaybird--tends to keep me closer to the nest on weekends.

But I love watching the birds that come to our backyard feeders and birdbath. My favorite is the red-breasted nuthatch, the main reason I own and maintain a peanut feeder.

What really makes yard birding interesting for me is keeping track of all the birds that come and go, or in birding terms, maintaining a yard list. If you are not keeping a yard list, I urge you to start. It will add to your enjoyment of the hobby and improve your observation skills. 

My own back yard is small and surrounded by other houses. Yet after less than seven years in this location, my yard list is up to 86 species. That's pretty good, but it's really nothing remarkable. The more you look, the more you see, and I spend a lot of hours looking.

To put my own record into perspective, consider what local birders refer to as "The Yard" in Downers Grove. Those homeowners, who have lived on the property for 33 years, have built a yard list of legendary proportions--194 species! Now that's remarkable. Their latest addition came last fall when they spotted some tundra swans flying over.

That's right, fly-overs count. There are no hard and fast rules, of course, but most birders define a "yard bird" as any species seen on or from one's property. That opens up a lot of possibilities.

In fact, over time, most of your yard birds will not be birds that visit your feeders. The majority will be the birds you observe in the air, or the birds you spot flitting around your trees and shrubs during the spring and fall migration seasons. 

A quick analysis of my logbook shows that only about 30 species have visited the various feeders or other enticements I have placed in my yard over the years. More than half of my avian visitors were simply observed by looking up, down and around. Three of my yard birds weren't even seen, they were heard: great-horned owl, Eastern screech owl and killdeer.

One of my yard birds was also a "lifer"--the first pine siskin I ever laid eyes on was at my thistle feeder.

In 2003, for the first time, I kept a "year list" for the yard as well, logging the name and date for each species seen. I ended up with 73 species. 

Keeping a year list adds another fun dimension to yard birding. There's the challenge of seeing how many species you can observe, plus the data can be useful for tracking patterns or changes from year to year. I know people who could tell you when the first robin appeared in their yards for each of the last 10 springs. Useless information? Not for a birder.

Obviously, you can take the listing game as far as you wish. But at the very least, keep a yard list. You might be surprised by how fast it grows.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.