No need to stream movies. Some of the best entertainment is flying around outside

As many spend more time sheltering in place, Professor of Biology Dave Gammon offers some tips about how to attract birds and learn from them.

The transition to learning and working remotely means more Elon students, faculty and staff are spending most of their days at home, often providing them time to pause and gaze out of the window.

Spring is unfolding out there, performing its annual opus. Amid the blooming tulips and yellow pollen clouds are a whole lot of very busy birds.

Who better to provide suggestions for how to enjoy these feathered friends than Professor of Biology Dave Gammon, who has built a career out of studying birds and their songs.

Gammon remembers his father predicting that he would grow out of his childhood fascination with the outdoors. That never happened. Once Gammon learned that studying birdsongs could be a career, he began researching bird calls, ultimately focusing on the songs of the northern mockingbird.

“No one was studying the northern mockingbird because they have so many songs. It’s daunting. But they’re a common species, and I find that studying them works well for my students. There are so many mockingbirds on Elon’s campus, all the students have to do is point a microphone at them and hit record,” Gammon says.

Things to look for

Breeding season for birds is peaking right now, which Gammon says makes it the most exciting time of the year for bird watching. They’re very active now, dancing and displaying as they do their best to attract mates.

Professor of Biology Dave Gammon and his daughter Lucy look for birds in the family’s back yard. (photo by Olive Gammon)

Birds are also beginning to migrate. During the next month, many new and unusual birds will move through North Carolina on their journey north. Gammon recommends watching for species like the scarlet tanager, white-throated sparrows and yellow-rumped warbler. Flocks of swooping chimney swifts will pass through very soon, followed by the chatty gray catbird, which copy other birds’ songs.

How you can participate

Gammon says attracting birds couldn’t be simpler than it is right now.

Easy-to-make feeders like this pine cone covered in peanut butter and seed will attract birds. (photo by Olive Gammon)

“All you really have to do is put something out that birds will eat and they’ll come. A fun homemade feeder project that kids love is to cover a pinecone with peanut butter, dip it in seeds then hang it somewhere,” Gammon says.

If you already have an established feeder, Gammon suggests challenging the birds by making a puzzle they must solve to get food, like a door to open or string to pull. Blue jays and crows are the brainy ones, so Gammon says they’re the ones most likely to figure it out.

Birdwatching offers a lot of health benefits, both physical and mental. Being outdoors gets us moving around and breathing fresh air and keeps our minds active, questioning and learning. And Gammon points out that watching the birds can remind us of the normalcy in place outside the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Of all the species in North Carolina, humans are the only ones affected by the novel coronavirus, not our animals or plants,” Gammon says. “From the birds’ perspective, this is just their normal routine. I appreciate the realization that, for them, everything is the same as it’s always been.”

The northern cardinal, North Carolina’s state bird, is a common visitor to backyard feeders.

As you observe the avian action in our yards and communities, Gammon suggests also supporting the work of scientists by contributing data to online resources. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website eBird is a comprehensive resource for birding as well as a repository for citizen scientist information. One of Gammon’s former students, Lucas Hale ’18, used large amounts of data from eBird for his research comparing bird survey data from the Elon University Forest to other habitats in the Piedmont.

“Often people want experts to tell them what to do, but there’s so much we don’t know about birds,” Gammon says. “People just need to watch and let the birds teach them.”