Many of us wish that our lives would slow down. We wish we had time to wander outside and enjoy the beauty of nature. Well, there’s good news. Birding offers an opportunity to do just this. It’s one of those hobbies that allow you to explore your curiosities, gives you a reason to stop and contemplate, and to recognize what a joy it is to be in this world. These are just a few of the reasons people give when asked why they love birding. And there are many, many more.
If you’re new to the world of birding, you have just a few things to learn before embarking on this journey. This guide will cover some of the basics, such as: what to buy, parts of a bird, birding tips, and links to other birding websites and organizations.
But first, more on why people love birding and why you should consider adding it to your growing list of hobbies.
Some people are drawn to the beauty of birds. They love the variety of songs. They love the sight of a bird they’ve never seen before. Others like the companionship that naturally comes along with birding. Birding is growing in popularity and many people choose to embark on group trips in order to learn about the world of birding, or simply to have the companionship of other people involved in the hobby. There’s no doubt that birding is a peaceful hobby, but it’s also exciting and often awe-inspiring. There’s an element of mystery involved when you begin a birding excursion. You never know what might happen; you can’t always predict what sort of bird you might spot on your trip. And of course there’s the thrill–some birders describe it as a high–that comes when you finally spot a bird you’ve been longing to see. One of the other benefits is that it can be done virtually anywhere (anywhere outdoors, at least) and there also isn’t a lot of technical gear required to enjoy it, making it a great low-key hobby.
Whatever your reasons for birding, you’re sure not to be disappointed. But before you wander around outside without a clue what you’re look at or for, make sure you read the rest of the guide, beginning with what to buy.
What to Buy
Birding doesn’t require a lot of gear. This is one of the great things about the hobby. All you really need is a good pair of binoculars, a notebook to track your birds, and a field guide. You can waste money on excess gear when it comes to any hobby, but it truly isn’t necessary to spend a lot on birding.
Notebook- This is where you keep track of the birds you see and make notes about the hobby. You can buy a specialty-made birding notebook, or purchase a cheap one. It all depends on personal preference. Some people prefer a fancy, specialty notebook, and for others it isn’t such a big deal.
Field Guide – You’ll need at least one field guild for your birding excursions. You’ll want a portable and compact field guide so that you can take it with you on your birding trips. Browse through guides at your local bookshop to see what appeals most to you and read through it before you go birding. That way you’ll have an idea what to expect before you get out in the field.
Binoculars – Buying a good pair of binoculars is an essential part of birdwatching and it’s definitely the most important purchase you’ll make. You’ll probably want to drop at least $200 on a good pair of binoculars. No, the old cheap pair laying around your house isn’t going to do. If you’re serious about birdwatching you’ll want to get the best binoculars you can.
When purchasing binoculars, one of the things you’ll want to pay attention to is the field view. You’ll want to make sure the view is large enough to accurately see the birds. Keep in mind that the larger view may also mean less powerful binoculars, so consider what matters to you and make the purchase that feels right to you.
You can get 7x, 10x, or 8x and 8.5x binoculars.
7x binoculars offer great depth and a large field view, though some feel they don’t have enough power
10x will give you the largest image of the bird, but the field of view is less so it may be more difficult to locate a bird. They generally don’t focus as closely, so you may have to make more adjustments
8x and 8.5x are the most popular binoculars because they have both great depth and focus. They’re typically considered middle-range, falling somewhere between 7x and 10x, making them a great option for beginning birders.
Parts of a Bird
Before you get any further into the world of birding, you’re going to want to learn about the different parts of a bird. Every hobby has its own set of lingo and if you don’t know some of the basics, you’re going to feel confused when you get out in the field and try to identify your first bird. Most field guides assume you have some cursory knowledge about the hobby, so it’s best to know the basics. But don’t worry–if you can’t remember everything, you can still have a great time birding and you’ll gradually gain the knowledge you need as you become more immersed in the world of birding.
Head - The head is extremely important when it comes to identification. The patterns of feathers on the head will give you good indication of the type of bird you’re observing. There are several parts of the bird’s head to pay attention to, such as the crown, the supercilium, and the lores. The crown is the part on top of the bird’s head, the supercilium is the feather group below the crown, and the lores is the place between the eye and the bill.
When identifying, you’ll also want to pay attention to the eye color and the shape and color of the bill. For some birds, eye color is an extremely important mark for identification.
Outerwing – The outerwing is comprised of primary feathers, primary coverts, and the alula. The primary feathers attach to the outermost bones of the wing. When identifying based on primary feathers, it’s more important to pay attention to length than to color. The primary coverts are the small feathers atop flight feathers and the alula feathers overlap the primary coverts.
Innerwing – The innerwing refers to the part between the bend of the wing and the body. It’s comprised of secondaries, tertials, greater coverts, median coverts, and lesser coverts.
Underwing – The underwing is only visible when a bird is either perched and stretching, or flying. When identifying, remember that a single wing has two sides, often with different colors and patterns.
Upperparts – This is the upper body of the bird. It’s divided into four groups: scapulars, back, rump, and uppertail coverts.
Underparts- This part of the bird is important in identification and is made up of a variety of parts–chin, throat, sides, breast, belly, flanks, and undertail coverts.
Legs and Feet – Legs and feet on a bird can vary greatly. When identifying, you’ll want to pay attention to the length and color of the legs. Leg length can vary greatly and is sometimes an overlooked identifying mark.
Tail – You can often find important identifying marks on the tail. It’s important to remember that your view of the pattern changes as the bird moves, so pay attention to the tail as the bird–or you–change position to get a better idea of the full coloring of the tail.
For more information on bird parts, see Bird Identification
Once you’ve purchased your field guide, notebook and binoculars and have some of the basics down, you’re ready to begin birding. Here are some helpful tips for when you’re either preparing to go birding or if you’re already out in the field.
Learn to listen – Sound is an important part of birding. If you’re not experienced in listening to the birds, you might want to purchase an audiobook or look online for free samples of bird calls. This can help to tune your ear to the sounds of the birds before you venture outside.
Pay attention to behavior - Is the bird flapping constantly, or is it running and hopping around on the ground? While markings are important, behavior is another good way to identify birds, so it’s extremely important that you don’t overlook this part of the identification process.
The main idea here is to think of yourself as a sleuth whose job it is to solve a mystery. In this case, of course, there’s no murder–just an innocent bird waiting to be identified. Naturally you’ll want to pay attention to everything you can in order to identify your bird.
Other things you’ll want to pay attention to are size, shape, characteristics of its flight, when it’s appearing, and where. But if you don’t know yet, for instance, what sort of birds you find near the coast, don’t worry. You’ll learn these things gradually as you become more immersed in the hobby.
Join a group – While birding is a great solitary experience, it’s also really enjoyable to go birding in a group. Some people prefer group birding because they like the social aspect and enjoy learning from more experienced birding enthusiasts. Since birding is becoming so popular, it shouldn’t be a problem to find a group near you. You can check with your local Audubon Society or your local park for birding groups near you, or you can always look online. If you’re a beginner, joining a group is one of the best ways to learn about the hobby. While reading guides like this are a great way to get acquainted with birding, you’ll learn so much from talking with other people who have also been there.
Attract birds – If you want birds to come to your house, spend some time building a bird house or planting flowers that will attract them. While some people love going out of their homes to bird watch, others love it when the birds come to them.
Follow bird watching ethics – There’s a fairly simple set of ethics every good bird watcher follows. The American Birding Association has a list of guidelines to follow, but the basics are the same for nearly every bird watcher out there.
One of the most important things to remember is to respect the birds. Never forget that you’re in their habitat–their homes–and that you shouldn’t do anything that would either disturb or harm them. You will also want to respect the land. Don’t trespass on private property, hit the trees in order to stir the birds out of their homes, or leave your candy bar wrappers on the ground. If you try to go bird watching on private property while eating Cheetos and running like a madman toward a tree while shouting bird-calls at the top of your lungs, you’re going to get some strange looks–both from other people and also probably from the birds as they fly as far away from you as possible.
Have fun – Yes, this one is obvious, but it’s still good to mention. While you want to make sure you’re following the rules and learning everything you can about the world of birding, the best thing you can do is relax and enjoy. Birding is a great hobby for people of all ages, so have fun learning about this exciting new world. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert in birding.
American Birding Association – Join the ABA or just browse their site for relevant birding information
Audubon – Audubon is an awesome place to learn about birding or search for local chapters, nature outings, and educational seminars
Birding – Great resource for all sorts of information about birdwatching