Two men search for birds in the forest

Birding 101

Learn the basics to enjoy this lifetime outdoor activity anywhere.

Like walking or running, birding is an activity that you can do anywhere, any time. You can “take it with you” on all of your other outdoor adventures, from a bike ride to a paddling excursion. And unlike more extreme sports, you can do it for the rest of your life. Like any new pursuit, getting started can be the hardest step. But bird watching is really no fancier than that: It’s watching birds. Here are some tips to get you going.

Begin in Your Backyard

The easiest way to begin birding is by looking out the window. If you are in a completely urban environment with only pigeons and sparrows, go to your local park. You’ll likely find birds on the lawn, in the shrubs and in the trees. Start here. Many backyard birds are easy to identify (think: robin, cardinal, chickadee). Get a feeder and the birds will literally come to you (make sure it’s in compliance with any local or HOA regulations). The best feed is determined by your region so ask at your local feed store, though sunflower seeds are almost always a good bet. Even easier than a feeder is a bird bath. It will actually attract a more diverse range of bird species than the feeder. Before you get a bird feeder or a bird bath, ask yourself if you can commit the time to keep it clean and filled.

Have an app or a field guide at hand to help with identification (see below). Start with the basics: How big is the bird? What does its beak look like? What color is it? Do the wings have bars (stripes)? Consider keeping a notebook on what birds you see, where and when.   

Get Some Guidance

You don’t have to go it alone to start birding, not by a long shot. Ask to tag along with your birder friend. Look for outings at your local park system or sponsored by your local Audubon chapter. Follow birders or join a birding group on social media where you’ll find folks ready to answer your questions, like What’s This Bird? on Facebook, sponsored by the American Birding Association. You can even check out #BirdTwitter (of course). 

A male with binoculars looks for birds in the trees

Get a Field Guide

A field guide is essential, whether it’s an app or a book. The classic is Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America: The book’s known for its illustrations that help you with a bird’s identifying features. If you’re intimidated by even that, try the Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America, which is further condensed and can fit in your back pocket. A regional field guide (like Eastern United States) is useful because it won’t include birds you are unlikely to ever see in your region. You can wait until you get serious to get a more robust field guide like The Sibley Guide to Birds or National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America. 

There are a number of birding apps out there; start with the Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which sets you up with a suggested ‘starter pack’ for birds in your geographic region. It helps narrow down your bird in question by location and date, size, color and observed habitat or behavior. Once you receive a list of possible birds, you can click to hear the bird’s song. Alternatively, you can upload a photo of the bird if you have one and get an ID that way. Finally, you can get an ID by sound, which is perfect when you can’t see the bird in question. Record a bird’s song and upload it to the app to get a positive ID. 

Get the Right Gear 

Good gear will go a long way in helping you become a proficient birder. Binoculars are the obvious first piece of gear to acquire, allowing you to see birds that are up in the trees or otherwise far away. You don’t have to begin with $3,000-plus Swarovski binoculars. You can start with a cheap pair of $30 binoculars, especially for watching feeder birds from your window. You’ll likely be more satisfied with something more mid-range, like a Nikon ProStaff ($139), which magnifies your subject 10 times. Bigger is not always better; an 8x pair of binoculars is easier to hand hold than a 10x, which can be shaky. 

A pair of sturdy hiking shoes is essential, since you will be out in the field and likely hiking off-trail where it’s legal to do so.  

Become a Citizen Scientist

Step into a new role as citizen scientist by reporting your sightings on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird, a global online database that shares the collected data with the public, scientists and educators. Sign up to join a group conducting the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s longest citizen-science event at 122 years and counting. Or, take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count over a four-day period in February; commit to observing birds for at least 15 minutes a day and report your findings to Merlin Bird ID or eBird.  

You’ve maybe heard about a serious birder’s ‘life list,’ representing the tally of total species they’ve seen in their lifetime (the larger the number, the greater the bragging rights). Start your own life list, or even a backyard list. Whether you’ve identified five or 500, it’s still yours.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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