But fear not, dear reader. You can have your birds and free them, too. All thanks to the modern-day miracle of bird feeders. Feeding wild birds is not only a better alternative to keeping one locked up, but during the cold season a simple meal can mean the difference between life and death for a nonmigratory flock. Insects and berries disappear during the winter months and food sources become strained for many of the local bird species—like juncos, woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches and even the hated dove.
For those with a darker streak, you'll be happy to know that building a bird mecca will also attract those villainous birds of prey. Last year, my backyard became an all-you-can-eat buffet for a pair of great horned owls, who would hang out in a tree right off of my patio, never complaining about the human voyeur. This year, I've spotted a Cooper's hawk prowling around and once even hopping up on the porch bannister while I was playing video games about 10 feet away.
It's a real thrill to see nature so close up, and New Mexico happens to be one of the most happening spots for bird-watching in the nation with hundreds of species to be seen. But if you're still undecided, let me attempt to persuade you on the behalf of science. According to Dr. Emma Greig from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Project Leader of the FeederWatch program, the Southwest could use more amateur ornithologists.
FeederWatch is a winter-long survey that uses information gathered by at-home bird-watchers to track the routes of migrating birds and record trends of national population distribution. As Dr. Greig told me, “Bird feeders are a great magnifying glass on the birds in an area, and Project FeederWatch provides a standardized method of counting that allows people to contribute to a nearly 30-year-long and running dataset. This means that we can compare observations made in 1989 to observations made in 2015, and this is an incredibly valuable way to track changes in bird populations.” Which means you can tell people that you're helping with the progress of knowledge, even if you're really just drinking beer and watching birds.
But if you really want to get down to basics, just throw some seed on the ground or get a setup going like mine: an old plate on a patio chair. We have a ton of ground-feeding birds in the area, like sparrows, finches and thrashers, and they aren't too critical when it comes to feeder setups, meaning all you have to do to make a whole slew of new friends is get over those creepy, soulless eyes. Brrr.