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A New Year in Birding

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The start of 2023 — earthquakes, torrential rain and bomb cyclones notwithstanding — has been an exciting time for birders.

It begins with the ritual of that very first bird of the year. What will it be? For me, it was a tie between two birds: an American robin and a hermit thrush, both alighting in tandem practically at my feet as my dog and I were strolling around the neighborhood. Pretty cool birds to kick off the year after a string of dark birds, including last year's common raven and the prior year's turkey vulture.

And then there are the lists. Many birders keep a life list — a record of every species they've seen — and it's also fun to keep a yard list of birds that visit, fly over or call within hearing distance of your property. You might be surprised at the variety of birds that surround you once you start keeping track.

But there are also yearly lists that revert to a blank slate on Jan. 1. Recently I've started keeping one for Humboldt County, hoping to see a few more of the county's 489 recorded species by year's end. A goal can provide a little extra motivation to push past the obstacles many of us face, myself included. In 2022, I topped my previous best by a decent margin because I'd made a resolution to visit places in the county I'd never seen before, places that were remote, lovely and populated by birds entirely different from those I usually see. This year I hope to go even further afield.

Maybe you made a resolution this year to spend more time in nature. Birding is a great way to do that. It offers a front-row seat to a world that's both wild and accessible and a glimpse into the lives of creatures that are stunningly beautiful — even the ravens and turkey vultures. It's available for people of all abilities and mobilities. It's as inexpensive as you want to make it. And it just feels good.

I've fallen into the habit of doing a little birding every day, rain or shine. Some days it's as simple as checking in with the birds that visit my feeder. (I confess I've named a few of the regulars.) It's become a way of connecting with something greater than myself and pausing to take in the almost miraculous ethos of birds. In between moments of high excitement, there's a meditative element of birdwatching that promotes a sense of peace, calm and joy.

Science agrees. Studies have shown that a little time with the birds has big benefits in terms of reducing stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure and boosting "feel-good" hormones. During the early days of the pandemic, birding surged in popularity and remains a favorite hobby of millions of people. It coaxes them outdoors, even if it's just as far as their back decks. Often it takes them farther in search of a greater variety of bird species. And it connects birders with other birders through nature walks, chance meetings over a rare bird or social media. It helps people find their flocks.

There's some evidence, too, that birding boosts cognitive skills like learning, memory and focus. The world of birds is full of an infinite variety of colors, patterns, shapes, sizes and sounds. Each sighting is a little mystery to solve, sifting through clues and eliminating suspects until one is left. It's terrific exercise for our brains. Learning to differentiate bird species by sight or sound helps build new neural pathways and increase memory capacity. While it's true I occasionally mix up the names of my two children, pick any bird from my life list and I can tell you precisely when and where I first saw it, and under what circumstances. Move over, Sudoku.

If you've thought about trying birding or are already a beginning birder, eBird — an online database created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology — is a fantastic tool to help you get started, maintain your lists, sharpen your skills and teach you even more about these amazing avians. Creating an account at ebird.org is free, and when you record your sightings, you become part of the millions of citizen scientists who provide important data on population trends and distribution of bird species. Plus, it's chock-full of useful resources. Want to see your first American dipper, an amazing little aquatic songbird that walks underwater in rushing streams? EBird can tell you where to find one.

Once you start spending time with the birds, you'll learn quickly that their numbers are declining. So, the data you collect when you submit a checklist makes a difference — you're part of something positive. Maybe you'll be inspired to do even more. You don't have to be a scientist, an athlete or an heiress. You just have to care.

Give birding a try. Because caring about something is a surefire way to feel good.

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.

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