For anyone feeling the chill of the looming COVID-19 winter, there is an age-old hobby that can warm your heart.
Bird watching is a four-season pastime that experts say has seen an uptick in interest since the pandemic hit.
"You can forget about any issue you may be having, get out and enjoy nature. Plus, it's easy to social distance," said Kris Brown-Schoepp, co-owner/operator of the Wild Bird Store in Calgary.
And she says the bird you’ll most likely spot on those bitterly cold days is also one of the smallest.
"The black-capped chickadee is always here. They don't fly south. You can look outside when it's 35 below and see one. They are such happy little birds," said Brown-Schoepp.
Steve Kulak, co-owner/operator of Edmonton's Wildbird General Store, agreed the chickadee is a perennial favourite and added that the blue jay and downy woodpecker are also high on the must-watch list.
"The blue jay has great colours and a bold personality. It will often let people know the feeder needs filling by squawking loudly."
Kulak’s feathered review of the downy woodpecker stated that they "love suet cakes and will often let you get quite close. Kind of like the chickadees of woodpeckers ... just a really sweet little bird that’s nice to have around."
Food sales have been high at both stores this year, with black oil sunflower seeds the top seller along with peanuts and suet.
Myrna Pearman, renowned retired biologist and site manager at Ellis Bird Farm near Lacombe, said bird watching likely got an unexpected boost from the timing of the pandemic.
"It occurred in the spring, so people had a chance to get outside when it was warming up," she said. "I expect that those folks who got started on bird watching in the spring will continue getting out in the winter since their passion has been sparked and they will keep looking for/enjoying winter birds."
She added people have started to realize being outside in nature can be healthy, healing and interesting."Bird watching is an educational, engaging way to enjoy the outdoors, a wonderful way to share nature with children and fellow nature lovers. It is easy to – even in small groups – social distance while outside."
Brown-Schoepp said she has noticed a change to a younger demographic among bird enthusiasts since COVID-19, saying, "People who work from home now want to be able to look outside and see the birds."
She shared a store contest letter written by the mother of a nine-year-old Calgary girl who has asthma, and who has became an enthusiastic birder since COVID-19.
A portion of the letter states, “When (our daughter) chose birding as our weekly activity, we jumped at it. In a very short time, we all came to love it. We play backyard bird bingo, and enjoy spotting the birds that come to our feeders or fly over. We feel the birds are part of our family."
For enthusiasts looking to assist birds through those frigid days, Kulak suggests introducing a water bath with a heating element to keep the water from freezing.
"Adding a water bath in the back yard can add a whole new dimension to bird feeding and activity. Make sure the dish is wide and shallow. The best shape for a bird bath is like a fry pan."
He added placing rocks or stones in the water can help give the dish a natural look as well as providing a perch for birds.Kulak also offered a few do's and don’ts for enthusiasts: “Be still. Be silent and please don't download and use the smartphone app that allows you to play bird calls. It is poor etiquette and it stresses the bird out. The bird thinks the sound is real."