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  • BSideBecca

TryDay: How to Start Birding

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

I firmly believe in the value of a good hobby (or two...three...four!) to keep our minds active, and to help engage in the created world. Even if I won't be "all in" on a specific pursuit (there's just not enough time!), I feel there's always something to learn from a pro & ways to implement aspects of it into my own life. As we cover topics about the B Side of life, my plan is to ask questions of people who are great at their hobby to see what I can learn - hopefully you'll enjoy this series as well!


My Uncle Roger has been a birder for 44 years give or take a few. He's at 598 on his lifer list. My Grandfather and Dad were also birders, so I have read about and listened and spied on birds in the background of my life, but am by no means an expert! So I went to Roger and asked him to give us some tips on birding. If you have any questions, let us know in the comments! The following are his suggestions on getting started:

this is probably a distant cousin to my hummingbird friend, gus, who visits my feeder 2,468 times a day

{Roger} I decided to start my list while waiting in line for a ride at Great America with my girlfriend (now wife). I'd been thinking about starting a list, so when I saw a House Sparrow land on a rock I thought, "This would be a funny place to start a list. #1."

First of all, why “birding” and not “bird-watching”? No reason. When the term “birding” became popular in the 1970s, it described people whose chief objectives were making lists and competing to see who could identify the most birds. “Bird-watching” was less active, not as competitive, often more scientific. But as the hobby has become more popular, the word “birding” has evolved to describe the act of enjoying birds. So, if you ever notice—and enjoy noticing—birds, you’re already a birder.

Where you go from there is up to you. Some people put feeders in their yard and spend a few minutes over their morning coffee watching the birds come and go. Others spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to fly all over the country or the world, packing binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras with lenses out to here, and all sorts of gear to see as many species as possible. (Current thought is that there are about 18,000 species of birds in the world, give or take a few. A handful of birders have seen close to 9,000 of them.) There are birders at every level in between. It’s probably smart to start small and let the hobby take you where it will.

You need a field guide. There are many different ones available at any bookstore. There are also guide apps for your phone—some of them will even identify birds for you when you upload a photo. It’s a good idea to spend some time looking through the book before you look at birds, so you know what you’re looking for. You don’t want to be paging through a guide when the bird is in front of you. Good guides include maps to show you where you’re likely to see what birds. Pay attention to habitat descriptions too. You’re not likely to see a pelican in your backyard or a sparrow swimming in the local lake.

Next you need a fairly decent pair of binoculars. If they cost less than a couple hundred dollars new (you can spend thousands, if you want), they probably aren’t worth it—with binoculars, you get what you pay for. Or you can get a good used pair cheaper. Or just find a relative with a pair they aren’t using and borrow them. You want at least 8 power and probably not higher than 10. Above that and you won’t be able to hold them steady.

And that’s really all you need.

Time to id some birds: Look out a window or take a walk. Watch for birds and, when you see one, study it. How big is it—the size of a goose, a crow, a robin, a sparrow? What shape is the bill—hooked like a hawk’s, long and narrow to catch fish or flies, thick and cone-shaped to crack seeds? Pay attention to color and pattern. Watch for behavioral clues (for example, the Hermit Thrush continually raises and lowers its tail). Once you’ve gotten a good look, grab your field guide and check out the options. Don’t stress if you don’t identify every bird the first time you see it. You’ll miss some and you’ll get some wrong. Everybody does—even experienced birders. So what? You had fun doing it and you’ll get better.

Consider keeping a list. There’s no end to the lists you can make. The core is your life list—a list of all the species you see in your lifetime. For most birders, seeing a “lifer,” a bird they’ve never seen before, is all it takes to turn a good day into a great day. You can also list birds seen in your state, your county, a local park, your yard, or out a particular window. You can list birds seen on vacation, on your way to work, or out the window of your boss’s office during boring meetings. There’s at least one birder who has a list of birds seen pooping. Another has a list of birds seen perched on roadside wires. One even has a list of things he’s (momentarily) mistaken for birds. Unless you live in a high-rise apartment in the middle of a city, you will be surprised at how many birds you can find in your own yard once you start noticing.

It's a great hobby because you can pursue it at whatever level you want. Skip a day or a week or a year. It doesn’t matter. The birds will still be there. You can make them the object of an entire vacation, an entire day, or a few minutes—or you can just notice them while you’re doing other stuff. List, or don’t list. Photograph, or don’t photograph. Compete, or don’t compete. The birds won’t judge you.

Perhaps birds capture our attention and imagination because, in an increasingly busy, noisy, and crowded world, they’re just doing their thing the way they always have. They’re beautiful, challenging, and sometimes funny. So enjoy them and be a “birder.”

Jean Piatt, author and birder, put it this way in his book Adventures in Birding:

Birding takes one out of doors; it satisfies the craving of every decent person to brush the morning dew from the grass and inhale what is left of our pure air. It is an engrossing pastime and one never wearies of it but only from it. It affords endless hours of armchair debate and exchange of bird lore with like-minded friends. It is exercise, of a sort. It offers an inexhaustible treasures store of knowledge to be assimilated; one never learns the millionth part of all. It helps one meet other people and make friends—if you like that sort of thing. It interrupts your work, which, in almost all cases, is a very good thing both for you and for the work. But more than all this, it is adventure.


{B Side Becca} I don't know about you, but I'm in! I've got a lifer list going, a new pair of binoculars and a good field guide: Sibley Guides East. I've got my favorite birding app Merlin Bird ID (from the Cornell Lab), which does a great job helping id bird calls and can keep your lifer list for you. Plus I've got Roger, whom I frequently snapchat with exclamation points and poor snaps of distant birds: "!!!! I SAW A BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON!!!!" He indulges me and I'm starting to be more confident in what I'm looking at.

photo of hummingbird cred: Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash


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