Story by Larry Altman
You hear the “dawn chorus” as soon as you wake up. Chirping, cawing, singing, shrieking and tweeting. Birds seem to be everywhere.
Crows, mockingbirds, house sparrows, house finches, orioles and even some peafowl are attracting attention all over Southern California, sparking interest in bird watching and birding websites.
“I can’t do my work calls outside anymore,” Westside resident Jaime Shaps Cerniglia said. “Every time I do, people are like, ‘Where are you, the zoo?'”
Cerniglia and dozens of other Los Angeles County residents told SoCal Connected that birds seem to be increasing in numbers all around them, flitting about in the trees and bushes outside their homes, and chirping up a racket.
“So many,” said Jennifer Valenzuela. “We’ve had a blue jay or some other similar bird in our yard several times, as well as hummingbirds, and a small group of other tiny birds building a nest near our patio. So nice to see nature.”
But are there really more birds? Are we in for an Alfred Hitchcock-like invasion?
No, say the experts. You’re just home, seeing what you normally miss when you rush off to work.
“People have a lot more free time to notice birds around them,” said Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist for 38 years at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. “They are not spending hours a day commuting or taking kids to school. They just have their eyes and ears open a little more than they normally would.”
Although it would seem the cleaner air, reduced traffic and decrease in noise during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order has given birds a chance to spread their wings, experts contend we are experiencing an “awakening to nature,” a silver lining to the bad news occurring around us.
“We are starting to find solace in nature,” said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. “Could it be that there’s so many people just stopping to listen now?”
Fitzpatrick said readership on the lab’s website is up with people curious about birds calling emailing questions. He’s even heard from India.
“The isolation and lockdown of such a huge fraction of human society has left an acoustic space out there that is far more available for birds,” Fitzpatrick said. “Biologically, it’s completely believable that the birds are singing a little more in places where they are typically crowded out by human-caused sounds.”
In other words, birds can hear each other better as they mate and talk to each other, and we can hear them, too, while we drink our morning coffees.
“I’ve noticed around my house there is a mockingbird that sits atop a light post and sings his heart out every day,” said Edgar Pedroza, an environmental educator for the Los Angeles Audubon Society. “You hear lots of noise. You think it’s multiple birds. It’s really just one bird.”
Brad Rumble, an avid birder who works as principal at Esperanza Elementary School in Westlake, utilizes his passion in his educational programs. The best times to hear birds, he says, is before dusk and at dawn, or “dawn chorus.” There are house finches, the black phoebe, the ash-throated fly catcher, the mourning dove, and the western tanager with its impressive red and yellow coloring. During summer, orioles start to arrive.
Right now, mockingbirds are in mating season, something he has been able to experience in the silence on campus without students. He can hear the birds, especially the loud mockingbird.
“The Northern Mockingbird is a reminder ‘We are here. We are birds. Get used to us,'” Rumble said. “As summer approaches, we will hear that mockingbird less.”
That will make Westchester resident Lydia Smith happy. Smith said she has never heard mockingbirds “so loud and persistent all night long” in her 20 years in her neighborhood. She’s taken to using “white noise” in her bedroom at night to mask the bird sounds.
“I am not a bird hater,” Smith said. “I love birds. I love to listen to the sound of birds. But a mockingbird is a whole different animal. It is all night long. It’s like a car alarm.”
Loud, large flocks of crows also are making their presence felt throughout Southern California. They tend to nest in bunches and hang out wherever they find a good food source, like an agricultural site or a trash bin full of French Fries behind a fast-food restaurant, said John Marzluff, a crow expert at the University of Washington.
Crows families become more noticeable at this time of year wherever they have chosen to nest. Newborn crows are learning to fly and are noisily begging for food from their parents, Marzluff said.
The sound doesn’t go unnoticed.
“My theory is that all the crows gather around dusk on the wire and they’re asking each other about their days and they’re all catching up, squawking,” a Westchester resident told SoCal Connected. “That’s what it feels like. My feelings about crows are that I hate them. They’re awful, nasty, loud. Horrible.”
But many people are enjoying their new encounters with nature. Garrett said the county museum has learned during COVID-19 that it needs more interactive programs on the Internet for patrons who can’t visit in the future. Museum officials plan to “load up” their website with content.
Garrett is planning a virtual bird walk next month. He’s been gathering photos of birds while walking his neighborhood and recording sounds.
Residents in Venice recently have fallen in love with a peacock and peahen who took up residence in the neighborhood shortly before Mother’s Day. Where they came from is anybody’s guess, but Mike Maxcy, the Los Angeles Zoo’s curator of birds, said he suspects they escaped from someone’s backyard, where they were kept as pets.
Shay Beebe said her fellow residents in Venice, Marina del Rey, Mar Vista and Del Rey have adopted the pair, naming the peacock, Tivoli, and the peahen, Lady Claudine Clementine de Marina. They watch out for them, stopping cars to protect them as they cross the street and posting sightings and photos on social media as the birds travel the area.
Staying home has allowed many residents to enjoy the peafowl. Beebe said some of her neighbors would have missed the birds’ beauty had they been at work. Now, many are altering their normal jog routes to look out for them.
“I think in a normal world when we are so wrapped up in work and our drives, and the other stresses of normal life, probably we don’t pay as much attention to things like this as we should,” Beebe said.
“It’s truly a special moment for people to enjoy. If there’s any takeaway on this COVID experience, it’s that at least we got a beautiful chance to enjoy these gorgeous new neighbors who are beautiful creatures. To be blessed with their presence is amazing.”