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Why even a Big Year can’t compete with the comforts, and the birds, of home

SATISFYING: A Yellow-rumped Warbler feeds on flies placed in a flower box by the author. Photo by Laura Erickson.

In 2013, I tried to see as many birds as I could in the Lower 48. I recorded 604 species, each one a thrill. From Atlantic Puffin to California Condor, they gave me a rapid-fire, intensely fun year.

As much as I enjoyed them, the joys of being home again are equally nourishing to my soul. My Big Year was like being served a large number of dishes at a great tapas restaurant — delicious but overwhelming. The individual delicacies blurred together in memory as well as the stomach. Day-to-day birding is more like sitting down to comfort food. Even though the variety is limited, the meal is worth savoring, and every now and then, a bite is so perfect I can’t help but blurt out a satisfied Mmmm.

My latest treat came as I started writing this: A Pileated Woodpecker flew onto a small hanging feeder that ordinarily attracts chickadees and nuthatches. A foot-long piece of birch with holes drilled for peanut butter, it was hardly designed for such a bruiser. The feeder twirled merrily as the enormous woodpecker, his red crest and mustache gleaming in the morning sun, pigged out for a delicious moment that I’ll savor forever.

See photos of Pileated Woodpecker.

A few afternoons before, while visiting a family friend, I noticed a Yellow-rumped Warbler on the deck (above). It repeatedly approached the sliding glass door, attracted to cluster flies buzzing about inside. I smacked down a dozen or so and placed them in a flower box on the deck. Some of the flies were still alive, buzzing or walking. When one flew off, the warbler darted after it and snapped it up in midair. Then, noticing the rest, it alighted in the box for a feast. It quickly connected my stepping outside with the food, flying to the box the moment I set out a handful. It downed fly after fly, fuel that I hoped would power its migration the coming night. I took dozens of photos of it eating and, after it exhausted each delivery, staring at me through the glass, waiting impatiently for the next.

Last winter I noticed a chickadee missing the three front toes of one foot. At first, it was easy to pick out, its head and face messy where it couldn’t preen or scratch. “Little Stumpy” readily came to my hand for mealworms, allowing me to keep track of it. Through the seasons, I watched it grow more competent at using the deformed foot. By late summer and fall, it was hard to distinguish from other chickadees until the moment it alighted on my hand. Spotting it each morning is as richly sustaining as adding a new species during my Big Year.

Dining on exotic delicacies in far-flung places is one of the joys of travel, but the best soul food is served much closer to home.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

Read more by Laura Erickson

Bidding farewell to a favorite birding spot.

How habitat created by one neighbor brought birds to a whole neighborhood.

A joyful return to a long-neglected feeder.

What to look for when buying Nyjer.

The healing power of birds in the backyard.

Originally Published

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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