You see someone standing quietly in the woods. He has binoculars around his neck, a small book in his hand, and a backpack on his back. As you approach, he signals to you with his raised hand to be quiet. Then he points toward a berry bush. You see a bright orange bird that is sitting gently on a branch. You stop to watch it, intrigued by the black stripes on its head, throat, and tail. And then, just as quickly as you saw it, it’s gone. An empty branch, bouncing slightly, is all that’s left in its place. The man takes out a notebook from his backpack and jots down a few notes in it.
“A Bullock’s Oriole,” he says with a smile. “One of my favorites.”
And just like that you’re introduced to the world of birdwatching, or birding, as it is commonly called. This man, along with 51.3 million other people in the U.S., call birding a hobby. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, birding is the #1 sport in America. Who knew? But with just a few birding supplies and a good dose of patience, anyone can enjoy the wonderful hobby of birding.
Can you step out into your backyard and spot birds flying through the air or resting on branches? Of course! Do you see them when you’re out on walks in the woods? Definitely! Birds are everywhere! But you do need more than just a sharp set of eyes to be a true “birder.” All birders should travel with:
- A pair of binoculars: You can spend $50-$5000 on binoculars. Price reflects quality with binoculars, so do your homework before you buy. As a beginner, start with a less-expensive pair and move up to a more expensive pair as your skills improve.
- A field guide: Choose a handy pocket-sized one if you’re going to be birding outside. Choose a larger one if you’re birding from inside through a window. Some guides feature photos of birds while others use illustrations. Decide which you like better. Good choices are the Peterson Guides and the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
- A notebook/journal: Use this to record specific information about birds you see. Include plumage, shape, size, and behavior of the bird. Also note the time of day/year, weather conditions, and place. Don’t try to commit your observations to memory. Our minds have a way of altering and forgetting details over time.
- A waterproof pen
The Basics of Birding
What do ex-President Jimmy Carter and screenwriter Ian Fleming (think James Bond) have in common? They were both avid birders in their spare time. They enjoyed this hobby for two reasons: it helped them escape their hectic lives even if just for a while, and they were good at it. They had the right tools and the right know-how to track down even the most elusive birds. For birding success like theirs, you need to know:
Where to Look: Knowing your habitat will help you predict what types of birds you might find in your area. Refer to your field guide for information about what kinds of birds live in your area. Are you in the country, city, by the ocean, or up in the mountains? Be realistic about what feathered friends you might be able to spot. Study where these birds like to hang out, such as on the ground, on bushes, or perched high in a tree. Hang bird feeders or birdhouses to help attract birds to your yard for easy viewing.
What to Look For: You hear a bird rustling in the bushes and you quietly move closer to it. It has striking black feathers on top and a warm reddish-brown breast. Should you quickly get your journal out and record what you see? No! The noise you make will likely scare it away before you’ve had time to really study its markings and hone your observation skills. Instead, sit quietly and make mental notes of its markings and behavior. Birds share the same physical parts, known as topography, but they vary widely in color, shape, and size. Females and young birds often resemble the males of the same species in size, but their coloring is usually much duller. Seasons can also affect a bird’s plumage, such as winter vs. summer plumage. To help determine the size of a bird from a distance, try comparing it to another bird. Is it smaller than a crow, or larger than a sparrow? Also, notice a bird’s beak and tail. These are often distinguishing characteristics and may make identifying it later on much easier. One last thing to pay attention to when studying a bird is its behavior. Is it alone or in a group? Hanging upside down from a tree? Diving under the water? Include this in your notes.
How to Listen: Birding requires sharp eyes AND ears! Since birds are typically skittish creatures and hide easily in trees or in the underbrush, you may hear them before you see them. Luckily, a lot of birds have recognizable songs that make them easily identifiable, even when they’re hiding. Some even sing their name, such as the Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee (Chickadee). There are CDs of bird songs and you can access some online, but the best way to learn these songs is with field practice. Immerse yourself in their world and you’ll be a pro before you know it.
Birding Etiquette: You have your birding gear, you’ve done some preliminary studying of birds, and you’re ready to head out into the woods for your first birding experience. So exciting! But wait! There is birding etiquette that you should know before you go:
- Silence is golden! Birds will hear you long before you see them. For your sake and for everyone else who may be birding near you, refrain from talking and walking loudly. This will help you stay inconspicuous and will allow you to hear bird songs as well.
- You are in the birds’ territory, so watch where you step and take care of your surroundings. You’re on their turf, so be respectful of it.
- Stay off of private property. Be vigilant about looking for NO TRESPASSING signs, as most homeowners don’t like people with binoculars on their property.
- Don’t be a peeping Tom! Use your binoculars to look at birds, not other people or into houses.
The Benefits of Birding
There are a lot of benefits to birding that might not come to mind when thinking of the peaceful hobby. When avid birders build birdhouses and bird feeders, they help create new homes and habitats for birds who may be struggling to build nests or find food in our ever-changing environment. Birding has virtually no negative impact on the environment from fuel, smoke, or wear-and-tear on landscapes. It also doesn’t harm the “target.” Identifying, or misidentifying, a bird has never caused it harm. A full day of birding offers great exercise as you hike in, up, around, and through a woodsy terrain in search of an elusive species. Birding often leads people into other related hobbies too, such as woodworking (to make a birdhouse), gardening (to attract hummingbirds or orioles), photography (to capture your sightings), and traveling (to view different species). Birding opens the doors to so much more!
Birding is challenging, inexpensive, and fun! It appeals to our sense of wonder and curiosity, and immerses us in the beauty of nature. Try birding and see for yourself … the world of birds is a fascinating one!