The Beginner’s Guide to Birding in the U.S.
Here’s the gear and basic know-how you need to get started
If you enjoy spending time outside, consider bird-watching. It’s a four-season activity that will not only extend the amount of time you spend in parks or other green spaces, but also make you feel a little bit like a treasure seeker as you try to spot birds you know should be around (and find others you may not expect).
You can go birding any time of the year, but a good way to get hooked is to take advantage of the spring and fall migrations. During those bountiful times, hundreds of neotropical bird species rest and refuel in urban green spaces on their way to and from countries south of the US. Outside of the migration months, you can find resident birds in cities, too.
I’m by no means an expert birder, but since I launched myself into the birding world almost four years ago, I’ve gotten a good handle on the birds that call my region home and am making decent progress identifying those that are just passing through. Warblers are hard! Through it all, bird-watching has increased my affinity for the outdoors.
So whether you think all the little brown birds on your lawn are sparrows or are comfortable identifying a handful of common backyard birds, this guide to bird-watching in any US city will elevate your bird-spotting abilities.
Know before you bird
The first step on the path to birding is understanding which species are in your city at any given time. If you only take one thing away from this story, let it be this: bird knowledge is essential. I recommend eBird’s web-based Explore feature. You can search by species, region, or hotspot—a location where lots of birds have been observed—and can click on any listed bird for identification clues, photos, songs, and calls. Knowing the difference between complex songs and simple calls is like having a special tool in your kit; one that can help you predict a bird’s behavior.
Male birds sing frequently during breeding season as they seek to establish territory and attract mates, but some female birds sing, too. Research suggests that females sing less when they’re the primary nest caretaker, to reduce their chance of being found by predators. But when both male and female birds tend the nest, both seem to sing at the same rate. All birds, though, use calls to announce their location, the presence of food, to warn off intruders, and to alert other birds to the presence of predators. When you hear a jay’s raucous call, you, too, should look out for a bird of prey.
Once you’ve become familiar with the species in your city at the time you’re planning to go out, decide whether you’ll be birding alone or not. You can also use social media to see what’s been spotted locally. Birding groups and organizations often post photos on Instagram and Twitter, and some birders tag their images with #birdtwitter. Make sure to search using #yourlocation (replace with your actual location) to get the most relevant results.
Get the right gear
The basic tools for birding are not that expensive. You don’t necessarily need binoculars for your first casual birding experience, but I recommend purchasing a pair if bird-watching will be a regular pursuit. My starter pair was a Bushnell 7×35 that cost $23. If you’re unfamiliar with binocular specs, 7x is the power of magnification (objects will appear seven times closer) and 35 is the size of the lens (in millimeters). While magnification is self-explanatory, beginners should know that lens size determines how much light gets to your eyes. You want binoculars that let in a fair amount of light because you will see objects (and birds) more clearly, but larger lenses mean heavier binoculars. The goal is to strike a balance between lens size and overall weight. After seven months with my Bushnell, I decided I wanted greater magnification and focusing capabilities, so I did my homework and upgraded to a Celestron Nature DX 8×42 that cost $110. The Celestron is a little more than one ounce heavier than the Bushnell, but its ergonomic design makes it seem lighter.
You’ll also want to purchase a field guide. I recommend you get a regional one; it’ll be geared toward the birds you are most likely to see and weighs less than a comprehensive North American guide. I own the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, but since I live in the Northeast, I rely on The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. The most recent edition of the National Geographic guide contains more than 1,000 species, while the Sibley guide has 650. If you don’t want to buy a guide right away, check to see if your local library has any. To go paperless, try the free Merlin Bird ID app.
There is no stigma to birding alone. In fact, there are upsides. You set your own pace and can spot for as long as you want—just your lunch break or an entire weekend afternoon. Being alone also means you can spot spontaneously and your entire focus will be on the birds. You won’t have to make a date with a friend, go on a scheduled bird walk, or travel far from home, work, or school, either. As long as you have your binoculars, you can bird at any time, in any place.
Birding at home
You don’t even have to leave the comforts of home to bird-watch. If you have a yard, you can bring birds to you by creating a bird-friendly garden. Choose native plant species, which will act as a food source for native birds. They’ll also attract insects and the birds that feed on them. Planting native flora is a benefit on its own, as human activity has significantly reduced global plant diversity. Because plants are the backbone of many bird habitats, their loss has contributed to a massive 3 billion drop in the North American bird population since 1970. For just-right species for your locale, check out Audubon’s native plant database. The organization also provides tips for assessing your space and designing your garden.
Birding in groups
If you want company on your journey to becoming a birder, tag along with a birding friend on their rounds or sign up for an organized bird walk. For the latter, your local Audubon chapter is a good place to start, but local and regional parks also offer their own bird walks. Although a 2011 US Fish and Wildlife Service report described the average bird-watcher as a 53-year-old white woman with above-average income and education, the demographics of the birding world are changing. In the last decade, several organizations have launched to provide inclusive spaces for new and diverse birders and outdoor enthusiasts: Check out the Feminist Bird Club, Latino Outdoors, and Outdoor Afro.
Take it to the next level
Once you’re comfortable with the common birds in your area, challenge yourself to learn new species. Pick a site with habitats not found in your patch (the location you regularly visit to watch birds) and get to know the species that spend time there. If you often frequent an inland park that doesn’t have any bodies of water, for example, head to a river, lake, or beach to observe how waterfowl and shorebirds behave.
Another way to up your birding game is to become a species expert. Identify where your favorite bird hangs out and study its behavior for a year. Find where other birders have seen them, too, and observe them in those settings.
To be at the center of migration action, seek out a nearby destination birding spot such as a national wildlife refuge. A midwestern waterfowl hotspot, for example, is Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, and cranes top the charts in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Northeast birders, meanwhile, flock to Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey to see songbirds and shorebirds. You can also check out Cornell University’s BirdCast site for predicted bird fallouts (when inclement weather literally prevents birds from flying) and migration trends. It’s a good idea to use this forecast tool even if you’ll just be viewing birds in your favorite bird-watching location. Knowing which birds might be in your area can prime your brain to see them.
The perks of bird-watching
Bird-watching can also help you reap the benefits of being outdoors, which has been shown to improve human physiological and mental health. In general, viewing and spending time in nature can lead to lower blood pressure and a slower heart rate, shorter recovery times after surgery, and increased attention and focus. Research also shows that adults socialize more in greener spaces. Landscapes with more trees benefit children, too—they play more, and in more creative ways, in areas with more trees.
Honing in on wellbeing gains specifically attributable to birding, listening to birdsong can not only improve concentration and reduce stress, but hearing certain types of bird sounds can boost your attachment to nature.
You won’t be the only beneficiary of your newfound pastime, either. Any bird data you collect and share is a boon for both scientists and birds. The information you share with “citizen science” projects like eBird is used in conservation research and policy and, if bird-watching is a form of monitoring species, birding is an act of stewardship as defined by the US Forest Service—you’re taking care of the world around you. It’s a lot more than simply looking at birds.