For many of us uninitiated outsiders, such acute observations and knowledge seem unattainable, as if the bird watcher possessed a set of extra senses, or magical access to a secret database.
Birding, like many engrossing pastimes, starts with simple curiosity. If you enjoy observing the natural world, noticing details and patterns that shift with the seasons, you may be ready to get your feet wet with birding (oh, don’t forget the waterproof boots!). Don’t know the first thing about birds? No problem! No one does in the beginning. The less we think we know, the more open our minds to the unexpected. That intimidating encyclopedia of bird-facts in your experienced birder friend’s head was acquired one bird at a time, over years of patient, rapt observation.
Where does your curiosity lead you? Close to home, or far afield? On a slow, solo ramble, or in a sociable group? Delving deep into the technical language of Latin names and ornithological relationships, or focusing on the simple sensory pleasure of experiencing the natural world with heightened, focused awareness? Do you enjoy useful gadgets, or prefer a minimalist approach? Find your own passion and style. A marvelous new world will slowly open itself to your eyes and ears.
Gear for birding: start simple and keep your pack light.
One good guidebook, packable and user-friendly, will get you started. The Sibley Guide to Birds is both accessible and comprehensive; read the instructions thoroughly before taking it out into the field. Many beginning birders spot a new bird, open the book to the middle at random, flip through a dozen pages on either side, get frustrated and give up. Like a useful machine, a guidebook only helps you when you know how to operate it.
For quick reference on the go, a good birding app for your mobile device helps lighten your load: Audubon makes a novice-friendly guide which allows you to search by wing shapes, location, song call patterns, habitats, silhouette and size among other characteristics. Multiple enlargeable color images of each bird help remove all doubt.
One other essential: a decent binocular. (Few are aware that “pair of binoculars”, while common usage, is actually a grammatical error! What we’re referring to is technically a single binocular, which contains two lenses for a pair of eyes.) Without the binocular, you’re bound to feel frustrated by the limits of your eyesight. Birds are often tiny and skittish, and you’ll be limited to those bold species which allow you to come close enough to check them out. While options start at under $100, birding wisdom advises you to buy the best binocular you can afford. This tool is the single best way to enhance the gratification of birding, and an inferior model will provide more impediments than enrichments. Look for a magnification power (the first number in a product’s specifications, eg. 8×42) of 8-10 — higher numbers are challenging for beginner use, while lower powers are often inadequate for the required viewing distance. The second number represents the diameter of the lens, and should be at least 5 times the first number. Also consider the weight of the unit — it will feel heavier after hanging around your neck during a four-hour hike — make sure it’s waterproof (some cheaper models aren’t) and check for a decent warrantee to protect your investment.
Beyond that, a tough notebook or journal earns its space — you’ll never remember everything you saw without notes. The rest is common sense for outdoor excursions: comfortable, seasonally appropriate clothing in layers; enough water and food to linger and wander at will; and for wilderness outings, a basic emergency kit. After some time in the field, many serious birders decide they want a scope — essentially, a small tripod-mounted telescope for wildlife viewing. There’s no need to start out with this pricey and encumbering equipment; give yourself some time to focus on using your senses and enjoying the scenery.
Easy techniques and tricks of the trade.
Get comfortable with your binocular before attempting a real expedition. Sit on the porch, or on a bench in a public park, and practice simply spotting, first stationary objects, then moving targets. Focus on your target first with the naked eye — try to allow your eye to pick out details you’ve never noticed before — then find the same target with the binocular. Start with an average distance of 30 feet, before attempting closer or more distant targets. Get comfortable with locating and focusing.
When you start looking at birds, don’t immediately try to identify each one. Instead, even if the bird you spot seems familiar and mundane, spend some time noting its features and activities. You’re getting to know this individual, as you would a new friend. If you’d like to experiment with attracting birds to approach closer, you can try “pishing”: through closed teeth, repeatedly whisper “pish”. Others try another soft repetitive sound created by repeatedly kissing the back of one’s own hand. Both these sounds aim to engage birds’ interest in a comfortable, non-threatening way.
When you’re ready to identify, it will help if you’ve already spent some time with your field guide. One experienced birder suggests customizing your guide, using a system of colored dots to highlight those species commonly seen in your region. For example, a red dot might indicate year-round residents, while a green dot denotes summer visitors, a blue dot means winter visitors, and so on. Mark those which rarely or never occur in your area with an X or other clear sign. This will save you lots of time, as the vast majority of birds you encounter will be those well-known locals or transients. If you’re east of the Rockies, you’re unlikely to have discovered a Northern Spotted Owl — this would be headline-worthy news, as these owls live exclusively in a narrow margin along the Pacific coast. Consider first the locally common Barred Owl, with markedly similar features.
As birds flit in and out of your sight, naturally elusive to avoid predators, try to glimpse at least a few of these key characteristics: 1) silhouette, 2) plumage and coloring, 3) behavior, 4) habitat and 5) voice. You probably won’t get all five, but the intention will encourage you to spend a little more time taking this bird thoroughly into your memory. This internal bank will gradually become your most useful database. Remember, challenging our minds is a great way to stay in shape mentally; using these brain connections in new ways builds cognitive flexibility and will enhance your sensory perception in all facets of your life.
Let the birds come to you.
The simplest and most natural place to start: your kitchen (or living room) window. For urban dwellers in the heart of the city, this view will likely yield little more than a pigeon, seagull, or hardy crow. But for those of us lucky enough to look out onto even a small yard or garden, the birds are there, going about their business, oblivious of property lines and zoning regulations. You are not the only denizen of your lawn and garden, though the smaller residents take some instinctive care to evade attention. The advantages of starting behind a pane of glass are obvious: first, we can rest in comfort, enjoying a cup of tea and a cozy chair; second, we have a built-in buffer for our tendency to chatter and fidget — though skittish birds will still scatter if they notice an abrupt noise or sudden movement even behind glass.
How do we encourage these elusive visitors to get comfortable themselves, and stay awhile? We can start by offering them the two things they need most: nourishing food and secure shelter. Both carry a meaningful responsibility.
Be ready to follow through if you decide to install a bird feeder. Feeders can influence nesting, territory, and even population growth — if you choose to feed the birds, be consistent to avoid leaving families in the lurch, causing stress and potential starvation. Winter is an especially crucial time, in many cooler climates: if you go on vacation, make sure a responsible person is committed to regularly checking and refilling your feeder. For detailed advice on the seeds preferred by various birds, check out our Birding Guide.
Bird houses should be thoroughly cleaned once a year (late fall or early winter is a good time, as the nesting season should be over). This will reduce the danger of parasites or harmful insects damaging future broods. Choose the right house for the species you’d like to host; because of birds’ territorial nature, you’re unlikely to attract more than one pair to your yard, even with multiple houses. Aim to attract different species instead, with customized boxes. For the chance to get an intimate peek into avian family life, try a Window Nest Box which gives you a privileged view from inside your own home. Most birds prefer a sunny open space with some afternoon shade in summer. Mount bird homes on a pole, or hang from a tree branch to deter other species, particularly predators.
Enjoy landscape gardening? Birds will flock to your garden if you offer plants which nourish them and offer nesting opportunities and protection. Pines, junipers, roses, berries of all kinds, and of course sunflowers are all bird magnets — depending on which species you want to attract, the list goes on. Add a small, well-placed birdbath (and remember to keep it clean) to complete the bird’s ideal homesite.
One caveat: if you have outdoor cats who are capable of hunting (as most are), please don’t make any attempt to attract birds to your yard. Cats kill billions of birds and small mammals each year and may contribute to species extinction: if you’d rather not keep your cats indoors, you’ll need to leave your property to observe wild birds.
Open your senses: maximize input by minimizing your output.
This is one of the most rewarding personal practices birding teaches, simply through practice: the ability to engage in a meditative receptive state, encouraging stress-release and mental clarity.
Once we are truly engaged in an observant state, rapt with anticipation of the next warble or flutter, our “busy mind” naturally subsides. This can take a while. My distractible, modern-technology-accustomed brain might need the reward of a few successful sightings and identifications before the true fascination takes hold. When it does, I can almost feel my pupils widening, my eardrums subtly attuning themselves, my heart-rate gently slowing and my internal “to-do” list subsiding. The urge to make small-talk with my companion is replaced by a quiet scanning of the smallest ambient sounds, the tiniest rustlings in the underbrush. I become a little more birdlike. In this space, the real magic can happen.
Wild creatures possess two things most modern humans lack: at least one incredibly acute sensing tool, and the ability to become still and soundless when necessary. Their survival depends upon both. The more time we spend in their territory, the more we relearn some of these buried instincts. Leave behind any bright or contrasting colors (except in hunting season, of course), as well as strong scents and noisy devices. Blend in. Whether walking or in stillness, practice diffusing your attention in a wide sphere around you. Staring at the water’s edge, or into a particular group of trees, will cause you to miss the overhead swoop of a kestrel, or the flicker of a winter wren in a bramble bush near the edge of your peripheral vision.
Use your ears. There’s a good reason the term “birder” is preferred to “bird watcher” — sensitive observation requires more than just the eyes. When you’re moving quietly through the landscape, a single “cheep” or soft whistle can lead you to a group of tiny foragers hidden in the underbrush, or a large, silently feeding flock of migrators just out of sight in a winter field.
First, do no harm.
Birds are highly sensitive and easily disturbed; stress can have serious consequences. Thoughtless human behavior such as loud voices, sudden movements, approaching a nest too closely, or using flashbulbs or other artificial light for photography can cause grave disruption. At best, a feeding may be cut short, or unnecessary energy expended on spreading the alarm or making evasive maneuvers; at worst, a bird may abandon its nest or young.
Casual tromping through a field can accidentally destroy the homes of ground-nesting birds: stay on paths. If a bird flutters out of your sight, don’t activate panic by running after it.
Disclosing a rare bird’s nesting location can spell disaster for an endangered species. If you’re lucky enough to spot an uncommon species, notify only the local conservation authorities.
Part of birding is a genuine care and stewardship for the delicate creatures we observe: by maintaining ethical behavior and practices, we can support their survival in this increasingly dangerous world. Tread as lightly as possible on the little true “wild” left.
Go where the birds are.
Any less-disturbed natural habitat is bound to attract some birds, and even some highly human-ized areas such as farms and playing fields are popular havens for migrating flocks. To witness the smaller resident birds, seek the edges. Edges happen where the forest meets the field, where the lake meets the reeds and rushes, and even where your rhododendron shrubs meet your lawn. They can flit around in the open space foraging, while darting back into the protective cover whenever they like. Seek out local trails at less-frequented times, such as near dawn and dusk.
Calm perseverance is rewarded. At first, you may spot an indistinguishable brown bird in a tree, and while you’re fumbling to focus your binoculars, it disappears. Chances are, if you stay still, that bird will come back. If not, another may: rather than single-mindedly pursuing one elusive species, try to stay open and receptive to whomever is showing up. Even the common robin or chickadee has more to reveal to the acute observer. Keep your movements slow and steady while you raise your field glasses — your goal is to remain part of the scenery. If you succeed, there’s no predicting who could wander into your little clearing — bird, mammal, or surprise visitor!
Witness the “dawn chorus”.
Everyone should experience this at least once — after the first time, you’ll understand why many find it transcendent. Yes, you’ll need to wake up early: plan to be seated comfortably in a wild place of your choice just before sunrise. Bring a cushion, dress warmly, add a blanket if needed — anticipate what will help you sit as still as possible for at least 40 minutes. Many like to bring a journal to note their experiences, either observational or personal. Settle yourself and spend a moment calming your breath and noticing the quiet: it takes some time for the disturbance of your arrival to subside, and for birds to resume natural behavior rather than their initial alarm-response.
As the day breaks, the birds wake and seem to celebrate the coming of the light, each with its distinctive call. As a beginner, you needn’t try to remember each call or attempt to name the birds you hear (though feel free to record any intriguing songs with your phone or a hand-held recorder for later identification). Music lovers may notice how the notes seem orchestrated in layers, each bird chiming in at the perfect moment. Notice how those of the same species call back to one another with the same tune, or a slight variation. Complex social signaling is taking place, which humans have only partially decoded.
Birds are the most vocal in spring and summer, as efforts to attract a mate and defend nesting and feeding territory are at their height. These warmer seasons are also often the most comfortable for an extended outdoor sit.
Join a birding group.
Birders are, in general, an unusually friendly and open tribe. Most love sharing their passion with interested newcomers, and a few explorations with seasoned birders is the best possible education for a beginner. Flipping through guidebooks and attempting to cross-reference plumage, size, behavior, and habitat can feel discouraging on one’s own. Point out the same unknown bird to a veteran birder, and he/she will not only tell you the bird’s name, but often point out all the features which make it unmistakable. You’ll be unlikely to forget that encounter the next time you see a similar bird.
Investigate your local Audubon Society, the Nature Center or Parks Commission for group outings, and keep an eye on bulletin boards. Participate in your area’s Annual Bird Count, or start your own with a friend.
A growing awareness of our ecosystem’s fragility and peril may inspire more of us to take a closer look at our feathered friends. Birds could use our benevolent attention these days. Within this century, climate change and habitat destruction could wipe out up to half of North America’s current bird species. If you’re lucky enough to spot an oriole, a brown pelican, or a burrowing owl, take a lingering look: these species are all losing their range or their food source, and may need to either relocate northward or perish in coming decades. Getting to know these birds first-hand inspires many to actively support political initiatives to protect important habitat and rehabilitate devastated ecosystems.
Those who have rescued a wounded songbird by hand often marvel at the sensation of its tiny fragile bones which seem to hold the slightest whisper of flesh; its panicked heart can exceed 600 beats per minute in smaller species. Some songbirds can weigh less than half an ounce, yet a female purple martin has been documented to migrate at the staggering speed of 358 miles per day. Certain birds consume their weight in tiny insects every day.
Altogether, birds seem to exist in a secret, separate world, living by their own rules and often eluding modern science’s ability to track and document them. When we’re weary of the jungle of human commerce, industry, and suburban sprawl, the birds’ universe is a welcome refuge. Losing ourselves for a while in that realm both soothes and invigorates. In return, the best we can do for the birds is to hover with unobtrusive respect around their edges, while doing all we can to ensure that their world endures for future generations.