Opinion "Now is the perfect time to try out birding" (cartoon)

It's hard to remember back to a time before the now year-old COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the way all of us live, but it's not hard to list the ways it has changed our leisure.

Under the necessary guidance of staying at home, many of the things we did for fun in the Before Times, like going out to restaurants, concerts or theme parks, are impossible now, either by state order or through our own caution. Being stuck in our homes for months on end not going outside often isn't just the new normal, it's the normal normal.

However, one activity I've found as an escape from the confinements of COVID-19 is also one that came in part from a class assignment: birdwatching, otherwise known as birding.

This assignment was part of a lab in my Principles of Ecology (BIOL-318) course under the guidance of University biology professor Dr. Matt O’Neill. The goal was to find five bird species and 10 plant species in our local environment, identify them using several nature guide apps and research their morphology (i.e., their adaptation and acclimation to the local environment).

Already through this lab, I've found species ranging from the mourning dove to the northern cardinal to my home state bird, the northern mockingbird. I've even added my observations to the iNaturalist social network, whether they've been in my neighborhood or in my local park, Crockett Park. While doing post-birding research, I learned that the house finch, a bird native and likely well-known to students growing up on the West Coast, was introduced in my home state from a released population in Long Island. This was back decades ago when the birds were illegally kept as pets called Hollywood finches.

"I identified about 15 different plant species and five bird species in the space of only an hour, just down the Bluff from campus, which was so cool," said Claire Kosewic, a junior biology and women and gender studies double major also taking part in this lab with me. "I was especially excited to see a Cooper’s Hawk, because I noticed it while I had stopped to identify a different bird. I know they’re a common species, but it looked pretty majestic silhouetted against the Bluff at sunset, so it was an awesome moment for me."

Professor O'Neill elaborated to me in an interview on the major importance birds serve, not just as visually magnificent animals, but as indicator species for other organisms, like plants, in the local community. Professor O'Neill also told me that, despite not personally liking doing online labs, apps like iNaturalist have been a "boon" to this lab and projects like this that "allow students to go out and learn ... in the absence of [our] peers."

"We're doing our best to make sure you're going out to experience what you want to experience," said Professor O'Neill.

More important than the fun I've had in this activity is the fact that birding is adjustable to most current social distancing measures. In L.A. County, parks and hiking trails are still open as theme parks, zoos and professional sports games are largely closed to the public. This has been the case since early December when the regional stay-at-home order took place, carving out an exception in the lockdown for outdoor recreation facilities so as "to promote and protect the physical and mental well-being of people in California."

Even though the statewide stay-at-home order has been lifted today by Gov. Gavin Newsom as California's case and seven-day positivity rates decrease, there's still enough safety in going out for birding in a park as there would have been with the order in place.

While birding, a person can take up ordinary precautions when going out, like wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart from others, which at this point should be instinctual. The point being, it's as safe as an activity can be without being inside the home and ought to be taken up if you want to spend time between Zoom classes outside.

"During this exercise," said Kosewic, "I realized that I only very rarely stop to look at the details of my surroundings, but that is definitely something I want to do more of."

As we move into 2021 and the turbulence and isolation of the COVID-19 era continues, know that there is still one opportunity for stretching your legs, going out into your local community and maybe picking up a new hobby.

This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a junior environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Email comments to vbackerperal@theloyolan.com. Follow and tweet comments to @LALoyolan on Twitter, and like The Loyolan on Facebook.

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