How to Become a Backyard Naturalist Right Now

Wildflowers like chicory can be found along sidewalks and roadsides and in woods. Daniel Albach/Shutterstock

During the coronavirus pandemic, many people who aren't essential workers find themselves spending a lot more time at home. And as they settle into new daily routines, they're heading outside to find comfort in nature.

There are people taking walks around the neighborhood or in any parks that are still open, eager to soak in the sun and greenery. You can hear birds singing as coworkers sit in their backyards during Zoom meetings. On social media, people have been asking about the availability of bird seed, bird baths and binoculars.

Anyone who has started spotting birds, noticing butterflies and showing interest in the plants in their yard, can put that newfound interest to use in the City Nature Challenge. For the three-day global event on April 24-27, people are encouraged to look for wildlife in their community and post information about their discoveries on the app iNaturalist.

In the past, the event has been a competition among cities to see who can find the most wild plants and animals. But this year there's no competitive element to the challenge. So many people are in lockdown or under stay-at-home orders, restricting them to only essential trips outside the home. They often are limited to observing the nature they can find in their own yards.

"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's City Nature Challenge is no longer a competition," according to the group's website. "We want to embrace the collaborative aspect of the [City Nature Challenge] this year and the healing power of nature to allow people to document their local biodiversity in whatever way they can."

Tips to attract nature

Eastern bluebird splashing in a birdbath
To attract birds to a water source, add a pump or drip hose that makes noise so they can hear it. Kevin M. McCarthy/Shutterstock

The group offers suggestions for how to look for, find and attract nature to your home and backyard. The key is to look for wild animals, insects and plants — you can't submit photos of your neighbor's hedges or your dog.

For example, you can set up a light and a sheet to attract moths to your yard. They'll be easy to photograph and the setup will no doubt attract other insects too.

Insects are easy to find and they're just about everywhere. Look under stones, in rotten wood and on flowers. At night, search around street lights and porch lights. Look in your kitchen pantry and closets for insects that like grains and paper.

Put up bird feeders and water sources to attract winged residents to your yard, suggests the National Wildlife Federation. It's a good idea to install a fountain pump or a drip hose so the birds can hear the water, which will help them find it. Different birds eat different kinds of food so it's good to have a selection of seeds, suet, fruit and peanut butter.

How nature helps

woman walking with dog
Just 20 minutes in nature is enough to ease stress and improve health. Martin Valigursky/Shutterstock

The City Nature Challenge is one way people can take advantage of nature as a prescription. Being outdoors soothes stress and anxiety and offers other healing benefits like helping with sleep and depression.

And it doesn't take a lot of time outdoors to reap the benefits. In one study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that just 20 minutes in nature is enough to reduce the stress hormone cortisol and improve health.

Shinrin-yoku or "forest bathing" is a Japanese practice that celebrates the health-improving qualities of being in the woods or the forest. Walking among trees making us happier, nicer more relaxed people.

But if the parks are closed and you don't have a big backyard, there are still plenty of options.

"As people are mandated or encouraged to stay home, there are lots of plants that can support birds that can be grown from seeds — even in window boxes if you don't have a yard," John Rowden, director of Audubon's Plants for Birds program, tells The Revelator.

And you can join the City Nature Challenge by looking for wildlife just about anywhere.

"If just a few people find some joy or solace from getting up close with a pollinator out the window or a weed in the sidewalk, and learning what it is and how it works, the City Nature Challenge is still going to be a success," Lila Higgins, the citizen science manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, tells CityLab.