I’ve developed a new favorite pastime over the last few years: bird-watching. And I do a lot of bird-watching while riding my bike. Sure, birding while biking may seem like a crash in the making. Yet I use many of the same senses doing the two activities, so they actually pair well together.
I am constantly looking and listening while riding to anticipate motorists’ movements and to plan my route. The same goes for bird-watching. As I leave my home, I listen for the complaints of crows and jays to see if the red-shouldered hawks are in their sycamore tree. I watch the rock doves (pigeons) lined up on the traffic lights as I pass. Are they calm or restless? I know to watch more closely if they abruptly fly away in a large flock. A Cooper’s hawk may have just dashed in for a kill.
I know which trees and posts the red-tailed hawks use as perches for the next rodent or snake that comes along. And then there are those songbirds that I have yet to learn how to recognize. But their types of calls and songs, or their utter silence, are indicators of what else is happening outside of my line of sight. And so I listen and ride, ride and listen. There are many interesting birds to be seen and heard, whatever your route.
In fact, many birds have developed survival techniques for urban landscapes, even using disturbances created by cars, trucks, walkers, and bikers to their advantage. The Cooper’s hawk, a raptor that relies on ambush tactics, has become an expert at using the loud noises and disruptions of the urban landscape to catch its primary food source — songbirds — as they flee from a jogger or a backfiring car. And many songbirds have adapted to urban environments. Just listen for the house sparrows, for example, singing in shrubs in urban landscaping or boldly jumping around your table the next time you are sitting at an outdoor café.
For you readers who already have an interest in birding: What techniques have you developed to see your favorite birds out on your bike? And for those of you who want to learn more about birds, I hope the following pointers will present some inspiration for the grand opportunity your ride offers to know more about the natural world right outside your door.
Listening: One of my mentors in birding told me that he mainly listens to know which birds are nearby. This strategy may seem daunting to a new birder, but indeed, it’s a great technique to start practicing right away. And of course it’s especially useful when your eyes are on the road, watching for distracted drivers or preparing to make a turn on your bike. I listen for hawk calls and songbird alarms, and also for complete silence. When birds are deep in song or calling back and forth to each other, I can generally conclude that there are no dire dangers around. When bird vocalizations have a more frantic tone, or when there is a “pillow of silence” — a term used in the bird world for an oppressive silence in response to a threat in the immediate vicinity — I keep an eye out for hawks or other predators.
Looking: I’ve also discovered some wonderfully consistent visual patterns that help me see birds while riding. Great blue herons are easy to spot in open fields or edgeways. They like to hunt gophers in suburban areas, and a heron will stand perfectly still for what seems like hours, waiting to snatch up a gopher in its long, deadly beak. Red-tailed hawks regularly perch on the same utility posts and exposed tree branches — eucalyptus seems to be a favorite. Because they are territorial, I know to look for the same hawk on the same perch, over and over again. In the springtime, it can be fun to follow birds who have nesting materials in their talons or beaks and try to see where they are nesting.
Habitat: I was surprised to learn that birds, especially smaller birds, have fairly small habitats: that is, the area in which they eat, rest, and nest. So look again in the same places for particular birds you see or hear. Also, if you know a bird eats worms or ground-going insects, then expect to find it on the ground when it is safe for foraging and up in the higher shrubs or trees when something has pushed it out of its safe place. I also keep a lookout for food sources. When trees are flowering or fruiting, that’s a good time to listen and look for the companion calls or song of birds feasting.
Bird Best Bets
Now that you have some birding basics, here are my recommendations for birds to watch for and a few more tips about what I listen and look for while biking. Photos and calls, as well as information about habitat and diet, can easily be found by a simple web search. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great place to start.
Red-Tailed Hawk: Common, large, fluffy white-speckled chest, characteristic red tail feathers, black patches near “armpits.” Likes to perch on utility lines, and hunts in wide-open meadows.
Red-Shouldered Hawk: Extremely vocal, medium size, lives in riparian zones.
Cooper’s Hawk: Medium to small in size, gray and white in color. Its haunting call and presence can silence large areas because its primary diet is songbirds.
American Kestrel: The small, colorful male has characteristic black bands on eyes and slate blue head and wings. Likes to perch on telephone wires above grassy fields, waiting for rodent prey.
Song Sparrow: More likely to be heard than seen while biking. Very vocal and uses song for territorial and mating purposes, as well as for male-to-male aggression.
American Robin: Larger than the sparrow, common year-round, easy to identify with red-breast, characteristic large-eyed face, and yellow beak. Its song and alarms are easy to pick out (with practice).
California Towhee: Very common, ground feeder, brown with reddish-orange spot behind tail feathers, often found in thickets or low-lying shrubs.
Crows and Jays
The behavior of crows and jays is often puzzling to even the most advanced bird watchers. They are intelligent birds, and I watch what they are up to when possible. They are also omnivorous and notorious nest-robbers. Crows seem to be in constant battle with hawks, so I look for hawks whenever I hear a lot of loud cawing and chattering.
Perhaps the greatest treasure in an increasingly busy, information-saturated world is to get away from the busy chatter of our brains. My time riding and bird-watching offers me benefits in quieting my mind and feeling unshackled from our fast-paced, wired world. I hope these activities will also offer you, dear reader, some respite in this New Year.
To go deeper into bird language, check out Jon Young’s “What the Robin Knows” and “Bird Language” DVD set, for fascinating tips on how to read bird behavior.