On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, Katherine Wells and James Hamblin investigate a new pandemic-compatible hobby.

Listen to the episode here:

Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.


Some highlights from their conversation:

Jason Ward: The birds that you’re seeing in your yard or in your neighborhood are not there year-round. During springtime, we have migration of 20 billion birds. They leave South America and Central America and the Caribbean and head north to the U.S. and Canada to breed. This bird has to brave storms, predators, windows, and buildings, and it has to brave all of these different obstacles just to be able to make it. And it does this twice a year, every single year. These are small dynamos.

Katherine Wells: What’s the best way for people to start birding?

Ward: I think, first and foremost, we should utilize our eyes and ears and our sense of curiosity. Walk outside. Stay still for a moment and watch the birds behave and interact with one another. Listen to their songs and their vocalizations. Then, if you want to take the observation to the next level, purchase a pair of binoculars. Now you’ve unlocked the key to a whole different world that has always been there. After binoculars comes field guides. You can get a book or use an app, like I do. The beauty of birds is that they have figured out almost every habitat on the planet: oceans, deserts, high mountains—birds are everywhere.

James Hamblin: Is this a type of mindfulness or meditation that you’re essentially practicing? Is that a way to think of it?

Ward: It can be, absolutely. For example, I live in Atlanta, which has some of the worst traffic in the country. It’s frustrating. And I remember about a year or two ago in August, I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was very hot. We’re not moving. And I look out the window and notice that there are barn swallows, about five or six of them, just swooping around. Swallows are very acrobatic in the air, and they’re swooping in between cars and they’re catching insects and they’re doing all of these amazing feats of aerial display, and suddenly I noticed that I’m a little calmer now. Sure, we all have places to be. Some of us are probably running late. It’s probably frustrating. But if we take a moment to step aside and just appreciate what was going on right outside of our windows, it’s a way to feel better about the overall state of things.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.