When my husband and I were lugging boxes into our new house in 1981, a Bald Eagle flew overhead low enough for us to see its yellow eyes. While I was marveling at it, I heard Evening Grosbeaks calling from box elder trees in the back yard. What an auspicious start to my yard list!
We live in Duluth, Minnesota, at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior, and our old, established neighborhood nestles below Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. From my yard I’ve seen Boreal Chickadees, Connecticut Warblers, Hoary Redpolls, seven species of owl, and every one of the Midwest’s hawks and falcons.
Just about any yard list can host enviable species. My aunt and uncle lived in an apartment in downtown Chicago. From their windows I saw pigeons and starlings, of course, but also Peregrine Falcons and interesting gulls. One winter day, I scoped every inch of the Lake Michigan shoreline visible from their window and picked out a Snowy Owl.
Had my relatives lived on a lower floor or in an apartment facing away from the lake, that sighting would have been impossible, but I might have discovered some other treasure. Each yard list is unique and can’t be compared with anyone else’s. That’s part of the reason that the American Birding Association doesn’t take yard-list submissions or set the rules for what can be counted on a yard list.
My standard is to include any species seen or heard while either I or the bird touches my property. If I were visiting a neighbor and a Golden Eagle flew over my yard, I’d not count it unless it landed on my roof or in one of my trees; if I were at home watching an eagle over my neighbor’s yard, I’d count it. Once, to count a Barred Owl on a rooftop two doors down, I balanced atop our fence and leaned over, holding onto a tree branch for dear life. Voilà!
From a scientific or competitive standpoint, yard lists may be pointless or even silly, but it’s profoundly satisfying to keep track of species found on your own home patch.
You can make your list grow by taking five simple steps:
1. Plant and nurture native trees and shrubs. It was our box elder trees that lured in our first Evening Grosbeaks. Our cherry and apple trees attract fruit- and insect-eating species. Conifers provide shelter for weary migrants such as a Long-eared Owl that I once spotted.
2. Maintain a clean, well-maintained feeding station.
3. Provide a clean source of water.
4. Be vigilant. Check your trees and the sky as well as your feeders. During migration, scan the trees whenever you notice chickadees — many warblers and other migratory songbirds join chickadee flocks when passing through an area.
5. Learn the flight calls of nocturnal migrants, and listen for them on spring and fall evenings. You can learn the calls and how to monitor nocturnal migrants at Old Bird, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit facilitating acoustic monitoring of avian flight calls.
This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of BirdWatching.