Getting Started in Birding (or how to become a bird watcher without even trying).
If you are one of the millions of people who watched the movie The Big Year and thought “Hey, I think I’ll try this bird watching thing! It sounds kind of fun!” Well not only are you right—it IS fun—but you’ve come to the right place to get started.
My family has been publishing Bird Watcher’s Digest since the Days of Disco (we started BWD in our living room in 1978. You can read our story here) and we pride ourselves on guiding people into the world of birds so that they can become bird watchers. And now here you are, interested in this new hobby, wondering what to do next.
We’ll make it easy for you. Following is a set of frequently asked questions, the answers to which should give you a better idea of what birding is (and isn’t), how to get started, where and when to go bird watching, and what some of the secret passwords and handshakes are that all birders know (OK we have no such things, but it sounds mysterious, doesn’t it).
Which is right: birder or bird watcher?
I’m really glad you asked that question! The correct answer is whichever one you prefer. Some folks (who may tend toward the nitpicky) seem to prefer birder because it sounds more modern and more active. Others (who may tend toward the more esoteric and traditional) seem to prefer bird watcher.
Some people believe that “birders” are people who are more avid in their pursuit of birds, often traveling far from home in search of new or rare species. These same folks would argue that “bird watchers” do most of their birding close to home or in their backyards.
I, and many of my longtime bird-loving friends, use the terms interchangeably. I’m a bird watcher who loves to go birding every chance I get.
Choose whichever one you like best!
What IS bird watching or birding?
Bird watching is just what it sounds like: the act of looking at birds. Some birders enjoy trying to identify every bird they see as to species: is that a white-throated or a white-crowned sparrow? Others merely enjoy the experience of observing birds without feeling the need to identify each individual as to species.
Why watch birds? What makes us humans so interested in them?
Birds have a lot going for them. In many cases they are stunningly beautiful in appearance—one look at a male painted bunting, magnolia warbler, or a breeding-plumage roseate spoonbill proves this point. Many of our birds sing songs that are incredibly musical and pleasing to the ear—take the winter wren for example, a tiny brown bird with a long, complex, burbling song. Birds have interesting behavior involving courtship, aggression, food finding, devoted parenthood, and hundreds of other actions. But perhaps the most interesting thing about birds is that they have been doing something for eons that we humans only figured out for ourselves about 100 years ago: How to fly!
That’s right, birds have been flying (and captivating earth-bound humans) for hundreds of thousands of years. All of these things make birds truly interesting. In fact I would argue that birds might win the Most Awesome Creatures on the Planet Award.
What do I need to get started?
The two basic items used for bird watching are a binocular and a field guide. The binocular lets you get a magnified view of the bird or birds you are observing. Then you match what you’ve seen in your binoculars with the images in a field guide to birds. That’s it!
A decent starter binocular will cost you between $100 and $300, though there are many options for birding optics that are cheaper and also far more expensive. You should buy a binocular that fits your budget and that feels comfortable in your hands and with your eyes. Any major sporting goods store, outdoors store, or specialty bird store should have an assortment of entry-level binoculars for you to try.
Field guides cost between $15 and $40 and come in two basic types: guides that use photographs and guides that use paintings or illustrations. Most new bird watchers prefer one style of field guide and that’s usually the one that they feel more comfortable using. Go to a bookstore or your local library to try out a variety of field guides to determine your preference. And then buy one.
One additional tip: If you live in the eastern half of North America, east of the central Great Plains, start with a field guide that contains eastern bird species only. This will greatly reduce the number of birds in your field guide to those most likely to be seen in your half of the continent, giving you a better shot at actually finding the proper match between actual bird seen and the illustration in the guide.
Where do I go to watch birds?
Birds can be found almost anywhere on the planet, so there’s no single answer to that question. Perhaps the best place to start is right outside your own windows. Many new bird watchers start by watching the birds in their backyard. Then, as their interest grows, they may begin taking trips to a local park or nature area. Joining with another bird watcher—or a group of bird watchers on a bird club outing—can greatly enhance your experience because it gives you an opportunity to learn from more experienced bird watchers. Use Google or another search engine to find a bird or nature club nearby. Most organizations have their organized trips listed on a website along with contact information. Our company, Bird Watcher’s Digest, offers a Bird Club Finder on our website.
How do I identify a bird?
Identifying birds is like solving a mini mystery using clues that you gather with your eyes and ears. Here’s how the process works, with you playing the role of Bird Detective:
You notice a bird perched on your deck railing (or on a tree branch, or on your bird feeder, or on Queen Elizabeth’s tiara—it doesn’t really matter). To get a better, closer look at it, you raise your binoculars slowly, locate the bird through the lenses, focus the image so it’s sharp and clear, and then ask yourself: “What is the most OBVIOUS thing about this bird?”
The answer is your first clue. We birders call these clues field marks and they are the evidence that helps us solve the mystery of a bird’s identity.
Perhaps the bird has a crest on its head, or a bright orange face, or a black head with a bold white ring around the eye, or a yellow body with purple wings—whatever the MOST NOTICEABLE FEATURE is, that’s your first field mark.
Next ask yourself “OK What’s the NEXT most obvious clue/field mark?” And so on.
I always suggest that birders start at the top of the bird’s head and work their way down and back toward the tail, noting the two or three most obvious field marks on a bird. Here’s a good thing to remember: Most of the common birds in North America can be identified by the physical features on the front or top half of their bodies—from the top of the head/tip of the bill to the md-way point on their bodies and wings.
Do I need to keep a list of my sightings?
No, you don’t NEED to keep a list, but a lot of us birders enjoy keeping a list of the birds we see on each outing. Many of us also keep a LIFE LIST. This is a list of all of the bird species that we’ve seen at least once in our lives. I enjoy keeping a list of all the bird species seen or heard on my farm in southeastern Ohio. After living on my farm for nearly 20 years, adding a new species to that list is a real challenge!
Your list keeping is entirely up to you. You can do it for you own enjoyment, or you can share your sightings with one of the organizations that collects bird-related data, such as your local bird club, your state ornithological society, or a national data effort such as eBird (www.ebird.org).
Some Final Thoughts
Watching birds is one of the most enjoyable activities you can choose to do. It gets you outdoors, away from the hustle and stress of everyday life, which is good for your health. It gives you something endlessly fascinating upon which to focus. It will bring you into contact with really nice people who share your interest. And it’s an incredibly easy and inexpensive hobby.
Years ago when I wrote my first book Bird Watching For Dummies I coined a phrase that has stuck with me ever since: See more birds, have more fun! And I think that’s really the essence of why I love bird watching so much. And why I try to do it every single day!
Good luck and I’ll see you out there with the birds!
Bill Thompson, III
Bird Watcher’s Digest