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A Beginner’s Guide to Birding

Easy to access, bird-watching is fun and good for your health

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​Birds, whether everyday robins or exotic migrants, are both fascinating and easy to observe. ​

And the activity of birding — taking the time to watch and learn about them — can be good for your body, your brain and your social life, birders and researchers say. Birding requires almost no equipment, special skills, exams or even tromping through the woods (if you don’t want to), says Paul Laurent, co-owner with his wife, Amanda, of Epic Nature Tours in Banner Elk, North Carolina, and a member of the executive board of the nonprofit Carolina Bird Club. ​ ​

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“If you enjoy looking at the birds outside your backyard window, that makes you a bird-watcher,” says Laurent. “You have watched birds on purpose and enjoyed it — that’s really the only requirement to call yourself a bird-watcher. Then you can go down the rabbit hole as deep as you want.”​ ​

Video: Birdwatching for Beginners with Barbara Hannah Grufferman

Sometimes stereotyped as the domain of binocular-toting nerds, birding took off during the pandemic and sales of seed for backyard bird feeders shot up, according to the National Audubon Society. Participation in the organization’s Great Backyard Bird Count, a four-day event held each February that provides a snapshot of local bird populations, has more than doubled since 2019, says Audubon.​ ​

More diversity in birding as a hobby​

Birding also has become more obviously diverse, partly because of the social media attention around Black Birders Week, founded by the BlackAFinSTEM Collective in 2020. That came about as one response to a confrontation in New York’s Central Park involving Black birder Christian Cooper, who is now the host of the National Geographic series Extraordinary Birder With Christian Cooper. 

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Baltimore Oriole
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Michael Bryant, 50, a Boston-based professional photographer who got into birding through nature photography, says he’s been happily surprised to discover this new community of Black birders and STEM professionals. ​ ​

“I’m a Black person. I was shocked,” says Bryant, a.k.a. Natureman Mike, who leads birding walks around Boston for bird clubs and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. “I never realized just how many other Black birders are out there.”​

No matter who you are, getting outdoors is good for your mental and physical health, according to the American Psychological Association, and two studies published last year in Scientific Reports showed that listening to birdsong — live or recorded — is particularly good for our psychological well-being. ​

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Watching birds is cool​

Birds — their habits, their songs, their history — are fascinating to observe and learn about.

“These are literally the descendants of dinosaurs that come to your backyard feeder and poop on your windshield,” says Laurent. “Little warblers weigh half an ounce, not even. This is less than a pencil. And they fly from Canada to South America and back every year.”​​

Birds also are everywhere, so it’s not hard to find them. ​

​“You’ll actually be surprised by the diversity of birds, even in urban areas,” says Jenna Curtis, project leader for eBird, the online bird observation database maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “A small patch of trees, a local park can be surprisingly productive. Birds across the city are going to look for those habitats.”​

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How to Get Started Birding

Here’s how to take the first steps toward becoming an ornithophile. ​ ​

Start local. Begin by identifying birds in your backyard or local park — wherever you happen to go pretty often, says Laurent. “Start recognizing and learning those birds and gradually you’ll start expanding.”​

Consider buying binoculars. The technology has improved to the point that you can get a good pair of binoculars for $100 to $150, Curtis says. And Bryant suggests you can get a starter pair for as low as $20. The Cornell Lab has ratings and resources for choosing binoculars on its website, All About Birds. If you’re not ready to invest, check to see if your local birding club, nature organization or public library has binoculars you can borrow. ​

Grab a book. Laurent describes himself as “old school” — he likes using an actual bird book rather than a phone app that depends on Wi-Fi or cell service. Books vary in style and organization, so read a few at the library or bookstore to see what suits you, he says. Some have photos, but he prefers a guide with drawings or paintings that show more details of field markings — each bird’s distinctive colors or patterns based on species, gender and age. ​

Use birdwatching technology. There are several birding apps, such as the National Audubon Society’s free one, that allow you to share photos with other birders. But the big go-to is the free Merlin Bird ID app, developed by the Cornell Lab. Merlin includes every bird species in the world, Curtis says, but offers suggestions based on geography and season, and walks birders through the identification process using size, shape and color. It also has a new feature that can identify birdsong. Merlin relies on eBird, Cornell’s database that’s supported by bird reports submitted by birders all over the world. ​

Take a birding class. You can find online and in-person birding classes through a wide variety of places, including nature centers, bird sanctuaries, senior centers, adult education classes, birding clubs, libraries and educational institutions. Cornell, for example, offers a free birding course on how to be a better birder, and the Portland [Oregon] Audubon Society has a one-hour online class about woodpeckers for $30. ​

Go on an organized walk. Look for a walk that welcomes beginners, advises Bryant, who leads birding walks around Boston as well as birding photography tours in Costa Rica. “When you have hard-core birders, they’re listening for different things and they’re more focused,” he says. On beginner-friendly walks, guides and fellow walkers aren’t as likely to be bothered by chatter or questions, he says.​

Check out social media. If you can’t get out on a walk, check in with birders and follow them on social media. Look for hashtags like #birding, #birdsofinstagram and #blackbirdersweek.​

Join a birding club. There are birding clubs all over the country that offer outings, education and camaraderie — and welcome beginners. The American Birding Association has a list of clubs by state. Nature organizations and your local library are also likely to have contacts. There are birding groups on MeetUp, as well as on social media sites such as Facebook and Reddit. ​

Don’t stress. “Birding comes with time and practice, so don’t feel like you have to get every bird right every time,” says Curtis. “In fact, the most experienced birders in the world still don’t [identify] every bird, every time. So just give yourself some slack and have fun with it.”​

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