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Interest in bird watching takes flight during pandemic

Birding has seen a huge spike in interest, both for the backyard enthusiast and the more serious birders

Interest in bird watching has taken flight and families are noticing the fascinating world just outside their windows. 

Downloads of popular bird identification apps have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as local sales of bird feeders, nesting boxes and birdseed.

Avid birder Matthew Iles from Guelph, also known as the ‘Bird Man’, teaches others and helps them connect with nature through his own passion, birding. 

“Guelph and Wellington County has many bird watchers and a wealth of diversities. For me, it’s come full circle to have people connect with nature and birds in their own backyards,” Iles said. 

And, he says, you don’t have to drive around to find birds.

“We are super blessed here and lucky to have the Great Lakes nearby and lots of birds migrate here and pass through our city. The more you spend time looking, the more you will see,” said Iles.

“We’ve got Guelph Lake, the Speed River and the Eramosa and lots of lovely trails. To go near the water and see so many birds, it’s so special.”

A couple of years ago, Iles identified over 100 species in the area. 

“You won’t see them all in one day, but if you visit the same spots in different seasons, it’s so inspiring,” Iles says.

His love of nature began as a child, climbing the mountains in Wales. But his love of birds, in particular, came much later.

“When I was a kid, my love was insects and other creepy crawlies. And I was so inspired by David Attenborough,” Iles said. 

Iles studied zoology in Liverpool, England. 

“Birds were not of a big interest for me then but later I did notice how important environmental issues are and how animals are important, not only for research, but for social awareness as well,” he says. 

“The impact from humans is so apparent. The changes we see in bird populations are happening in our lifetime.”

A year after completing his master’s degree, Iles took a job in Ecuador, working in the Amazon Rainforest. 

“But I was most intrigued with the birds. They just jumped out at me, right into the forefront and I had some great guides with me who taught me so much. I had some unique experiences down there,” he said. 

Iles then came to Canada and wanting to learn more about local nature, became involved with a naturalist group in Ottawa, with a focus on birds. 

“And that was it. I was hooked,” Iles said. 

From there, his love of birds took him to Long Point, one of the largest locations for bird migration and with the oldest bird observatory in the western hemisphere. Working as an assistant coordinator, Isles researched spring and fall migration and collected data from over 10,000 birds. 

“I was blessed and lucky to work at Long Point. And that is when I realized how sharing inspires others to learn about nature,” he said. 

Since living in Guelph, Iles continues to share his knowledge and love of birds and teaches children at the Guelph Outdoor School. 

“We do tracking, especially in the winter. We are out in the elements, immersed in nature. I have a scientific background in nature, but here, we engage in more of a mystery process. We guide kids and help them connect with nature with more of a holistic approach. And now I use these methods and I take this to adults in the bird observatory as well,” Iles said. 

“Through all of this, I’ve come to realize how connected we all are with nature.”

Chris Earley, another local avid birder, is an interpretive biologist and education coordinator at the Guelph Arboretum, a natural history author and a veteran international expedition leader. 

For anyone interested in birding, Earley says that a good start is setting up a bird feeder. 

“It’s the easiest way, especially for young kids. They can get right there, see the birds and begin to identify them,” he says. 

“Some bird species are like bird ambassadors here, like chickadees. They are always here, and you can even train them to come to your hand.” 

Earley’s latest book, Feed the Birds: Attract and Identify 196 Common North American Birds, is ideal for beginner birders. The book helps the reader not only attract and identify birds but also understand their behavior and adaptations to the environment. People can also learn how to build a feeder and how to involve children.

Valerie Wyatt, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop and a member of Nature Guelph says she has seen a huge influx of interest from beginner birders, much higher than last year, especially with new people looking to get started.  

“Birding can be done anywhere. And here in Guelph, the Arboretum is a gem. And there are so many opportunities with all of the rivers we have here,” she said.

For Wyatt, birding is all about being outdoors. 

“Being outside, this is ideal. And getting birds to come to your yard, it can be so interactive and quite personal. Habitat is important and adding native plants to any backyard is also very helpful,” Wyatt said.  

Bird feeders, nesting boxes and sources of water will also attract birds. 

For the ‘Bird Man’, another good idea is to have a field guide handy, a great start to help identify birds. 

“There are so many on-line resources and apps from Birds Canada for families just starting out. Cornell University also has resources and there are apps for bird identification, some are free and some you have to pay for. The Merlin Bird ID app is like a field guide but more of an identification tool,” Iles says. 

Like other outdoor pursuits, birding can also be great for mental health. Contact with nature can ease anxiety and provide an all-around mood boost.

“For me, birds are just one of the most present organisms. Some have travelled for thousands of kilometres. It reminds me of how small the world is. By helping connect others to nature, it might help them realize how to love the world a little bit better,” Iles says. 

“Birding, it’s a gateway to connect with the rest of nature.”