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Learning the Art of Slow Birding

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Mapping birds' feeding habitats - BRIDGET BUTLER
  • Bridget Butler
  • Mapping birds' feeding habitats

Last October, I signed up my family, with great enthusiasm, for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's yearly citizen science survey, Project FeederWatch. The premise is simple: You watch birds and report what you see. I paid the $18 fee and received a cool poster and some simple directions in the mail. I went out and bought birdseed and a bird feeder, which I set up outside our kitchen window.

The only part I remember from the directions is this sentence: "Even if you only count once all season, your data are valuable!"

Guess what? We still haven't submitted a single tally. Life has been overly full lately.

So, when I talked recently with Bridget Butler, a local naturalist also known as the Bird Diva, the first thing I did was ask her, in a slightly challenging way, "Why should I pay attention to birds? It just feels like another thing to add to my already overwhelming to-do list."

She met my energy with the story of the first time she paid attention to birds in a particular way. She calls it "slow birding," which she explains as "a fresh approach" to observing birds. Rather than competitively logging lists of species seen, the focus is on creating "a deeper connection to yourself and the place you live."

Building a nesting platform - BRIDGET BUTLER
  • Bridget Butler
  • Building a nesting platform

"Once I got into slow birding, I realized it was helping me in other ways," she recalled. "The first time I did a 45-minute sit paying attention to bird language, I broke down crying. I didn't have to be the mom, or the leader, or do anything else except be in the moment with birds. It was such a relief. Primary caregivers need to give ourselves a break. And nature is free!"

If yoga or other self-care techniques don't calm you, maybe birding will, said Butler: "I don't care if it's a pigeon. This morning we went out for a walk behind our house and took a moment to sit by the creek, quietly listening to the birds. It was peaceful and soothing for that one minute of silence together ... and that feeling was carried back inside with us. We were much less likely to get on each other's nerves."

Research shows that using your senses can help relieve stress, promote productivity and serve a restorative purpose, said Butler: "I am finding it so valuable to go outside, step away, and let the birds call me to awareness and let everything else slip away for a little bit."

Butler will offer a virtual Slow Birding for Families session in April, which she describes as "a playful framework for experiencing nature with your kids." Participants will have access to five bundles of content. Each one has a video, a couple of activities, a featured bird and resources to help deepen your knowledge. There will be opportunities to interact with nature by going to a "sit spot" or just looking out your window.

Backyard birding - BRIDGET BUTLER
  • Bridget Butler
  • Backyard birding

Butler will also provide prompts to help you know what to look for. Without them, she said, "It can be overwhelming. Where do you start?"

The program is flexible, allowing participants to access the content any time they want. In the last week in April, she will hold a guided discussion, providing motivation for people to share their stories. A private Facebook group will help facilitate a community of learners who can continue sharing their observations and insights after the session is over.

While the course is meant for families, Butler advised: "Do it for yourself, not just for your kids."

I'm planning to sign up ($50 at birddiva.com), even though my teenager is a little older than the intended target audience of school-age kids. I'm planning to do it for myself.

What if an organized session isn't in the cards for you right now? Well, just go outside and check out the pigeon on your roof or the chickadees in your yard.

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont, University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College.

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