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Beginning Birding

How to get started.

All you need to get started is a good field guide to help you identify birds, and binoculars so you can see them up close. According to Ted Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine, the field guide is even more important early on since "it's amazing how many birds you can see without binoculars," including the ones in your own backyard. The next step, he says, is to join guided walks organized by a local birding club, Audubon chapter, or nature center, so you can meet and learn from other birders.

Nonprofit Organizations

American Birding Association (ABA)(800-850-2473)
The ABA publishes Birding magazine, runs educational workshops through its Institute of Field Ornithology, offers a directory of volunteer opportunities for birders, and organizes an annual convention. Its online store has an extensive selection of field guides and optics. You can search its online listings to find a local birding club.

National Audubon Society (212-979-3000)
This well-known conservation organization publishes Audubon magazine, has a nationwide network of sanctuaries and nature centers, offers ecology camps and workshops for adults and kids, and coordinates the annual Christmas Bird Count. Its website lets you search for your local Audubon chapter.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology (800-843-2473)
The lab publishes Living Bird magazine and runs a number of "citizen science" volunteer programs for birders, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, the Birdhouse Network, and eBird. It also offers a home study course in bird biology, a sound recording workshop, and a spring field ornithology course.


The following field guides and how-to books will help you start identifying birds, but they may be just the beginning of your birding library. You can find more specialized guides to birds of virtually every state and country and to specific families of birds (like parrots or crows), memoirs of birding expeditions, and travel handbooks such as Nigel Wheatley's "Where to Watch Birds In…" series.

Field Guides
The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2000)
A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

Getting Started
Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2002)
Pete Dunne on Bird Watching: The How-to, Where-to, and When-to of Birding by Pete Dunne (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

Birding Travel
Where the Birds Are: The 100 Best Birdwatching Spots in North America(DK Publishing, 2001)

Getting Started on the Web

The following sites provide useful tips for beginners.

National Wildlife Refuge Association: How to Watch Birds
Audubon: Birding Basics
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds


While some birders crave all the latest gadgets like night vision scopes and binoculars that can take digital photos, others are happy with a tattered field guide and hand-me-down binoculars. Birdwatching can be as high- or low-tech as you desire. Here is some useful equipment to consider:

Binoculars The most popular binoculars for birding are 8x40 (the first number tells you the magnification and the second tells you the size of the lens, in millimeters). Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have advice on how to choose a good pair.

Spotting scopes A scope is useful for seeing birds at a distance, such as shorebirds wading in a marsh. Cornell's website lists scope features to think about when making a purchase.

Digiscoping The websites and Laurence Poh: Digiscoping have instructions on the latest photographic craze in birding, i.e., shooting digital photos through a spotting scope.

Birding software You can organize and keep track of your bird sightings with software programs such as Thayer Birding Software, AviSys, BirdBase and BirdArea, and Bird Brain.

Video and audio guides

Videos (VHS or DVD) such as "Watching Warblers," "Watching Sparrows," and "Watching Waders," available from, can improve your identification skills.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library has an extensive collection of CDs of bird songs from around the world. Another option is BirdPod, a program that lets you listen to the songs of 650 species of North American birds on your Apple iPod. Some birders use it to study bird calls at home and take it with them in the field to help confirm identifications.

A note about calling birds:
Some people have gone hi-tech, using a media player attached to a small speaker to broadcast recorded calls to attract birds, while others call in birds by expertly mimicking their whistles or hoots. Calling birds is a controversial practice in the birding world. In certain places, there are rules against it and some birders are adamantly opposed to playing recordings and pishing (especially during breeding season). The American Birding Association addresses this in its code of birding ethics, which states: "Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area."

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