Birds are beautiful. These fascinating creatures may fly right up to our windows for us to watch them.
We can attract birds to our backyards, but there are some exotic species that are worth a special trip just for a glimpse in their native habitat.
There are over 700 species of wild birds in North America, ranging from hummingbirds to eagles, and prairie chickens to robins, bluebirds, cardinals, and goldfinches.
Over 70 million Americans take time regularly to view wildlife, spending over $45 billion a year on this popular hobby.
Your experiences with birds may be homey or exotic, bizarre or beautiful, pleasant, thrilling, or maybe even a little scary.
But once you get started birdwatching, you won’t want to quit. Here are our top tips for bird watching
To watch birds, you got to feed birds
Bird feeders make tough times easier for birds. A study of 348 black-capped chickadees spending their winter in Wisconsin found that they only got 21 percent of their food from feeders, but that having access to a feeder made the difference between starvation and survival in the coldest weather.
Even when birds visit backyard feeders regularly, they will still find most of their food in nature.
But your providing extra food will give birds any time of year an incentive to flock around your yard.
If you build it, they will come
Birdwatchers are sometimes upset that they go through a lot of trouble to put up bird feeders and they don’t see any birds right away.
If you want to watch the birds that come to your feeder, first make sure that birds can see it.
You don’t want to put a birdseed feeder in the middle of a vacant lot where feeding chickadees can become food for hawks and grackles, but you don’t want to hide your feeder under dense foliage either.
The best way to build a feeder station for the birds you want to see is to place it at the edge of safety.
Hang or build your bird feeder up to 10 feet (3 meters) away from dense, preferably thorny or prickly foliage where small birds can take shelter from predators.
Sometimes you won’t see birds at your feeder until bad weather makes foraging difficult elsewhere.
Don’t forget about water
Birds need water. They drink it. They bathe in it to keep their feathers clean. Some birds, like goldfinches, even like to take warm showers.
Even if you live in a twentieth-floor apartment with a tiny balcony, a birdbath can bring you birds for your viewing pleasure.
Remember that birds need liquid water all winter long, and install a heater. (Be careful that it doesn’t release steam, which can cause bird feathers to ice over.)
Most birds are more attracted to baths that include a waterfall, a drip feature, or a sprayer.
When you are attracting birds to your all-you-can-eat buffet, offer the “good stuff”
Birds eat for high-energy nutrition. They get sick if they have to eat moldy or spoiled food. It’s important not to use birdseed mixes that are mostly filler, such as millet and milo.
Birdseed that birds don’t eat can get wet and become moldy, driving discerning birds away rather than attracting them for easy birdwatching.
Keep in mind that while most birds are omnivorous, some are carnivores and some are vegans. If you love woodpeckers, you will be well-served to offer them suet.
If you want to attract vegan birds like goldfinches, provide them with fresh, tiny, shiny, black seeds.
Make your choices in bird food to match the preferences of the kinds of birds you want to watch.
By the way, you need to ban bacon. Some birds love it, but the preservatives in bacon aren’t good for them.
Bread isn’t a great idea, either. Ducks and pigeons love it, but they need more protein and fat in their diets than they can get from bread.
Use binoculars like a pro
Binoculars are a must-have for birdwatching expeditions. You will see more birds and more kinds of birds without disturbing them or their nests if you have a pair of binoculars.
You will be able to contribute more when you go out with a group of birdwatchers. But the best binoculars aren’t necessarily the most expensive.
Here’s what you need to know about binoculars for birdwatching:
The less expensive, weaker 8×42 or “8 power” binoculars will usually give you better results than the more expensive, stronger 10×42 or “10 power” binoculars.
Weaker binoculars give you a wider field of view. They are less affected by any shakiness in your hands.
They help you see where a bird is going. They have better eye relief, that is, you don’t lose your view of what is around the bird in the center of your field of vision.
You can get great results from binoculars that cost between $100 and $300.
It’s not unusual for birdwatchers to buy a great new pair of binoculars and then see nothing but black. That’s because binoculars have to be adjusted to your eyes. They aren’t one size fits all.
First, find the diopter adjustment and set it at zero. (You can find out where the diopter adjustment is in your owner’s guide.)
Then, find something at least 20 (preferable 100) feet (6 to 30 meters) away that has crisp, clear, lines in white or black. The lettering on a billboard or a highway sign make good choices.
Cover the objective lens (the large outside lens) of your binoculars with a lens cap or with your hand.
Change the focus on this far-away object with your center focus knob. Keep both eyes open as you do this.
Now cover the lens you just looked through and look through the other lens. Change the diopter adjustment to make the image clear.
Leave the center focus where it was when you were looking through the first lens.
You may have to repeat this process several times to find the settings that give you a good view through your binoculars.
Make a note of the diopter adjustment, so you can dial it up again if someone else uses your binoculars.
It takes some practice to see birds through binoculars. But once you master the art of focusing your binoculars, you can use them like they were second nature to you.
Carry a feather brush with you when you take your binoculars for birdwatching
Dust, dirt, and debris can obscure your view of birds.
Wiping lenses with a cloth, or, worse, a Lysol or Clorix wipe, can grind dirt into your lenses and smear them irreparably.
Always clean your binocular lenses with a feather brush. Clean inside the eyecups, too.
Pick a field guide for your location
Even experienced birdwatchers won’t remember the differences in colors, sounds, sizes, shapes, flight patterns, and habitat for all of the dozens of species of birds they can encounter when they go birdwatching.
You will need a field guide to help you with the details of identification.
The only state that has its own field guide for birdwatching is Hawaii. All other bird guides are regional. The field guide that will help you the most is:
- Printed. It’s not practical to read a field guide on your phone.
- Small. You will be carrying a lot of gear when you go birdwatching, and you don’t need a bulky book.
- Comprehensive. If you buy a minimalist bird guide, you will see some species of birds that aren’t in the book.
It’s always a good idea to read your field guide to identifying birds before you go birdwatching. Field guides to birds don’t list the birds in alphabetical order.
They list birds that are related to each other. If you aren’t already familiar with the families of birds in your area, the bird you see in the wild will fly away before you can find it in your guide.
Find birding buddies
Experienced birdwatchers, especially local birdwatchers, can offer you a lot of tips for finding the birds you want to see near your home.
They can tell you the best birdwatching spots. They can give you tips on when you will find certain kinds of birds.
They will know about bird watching events and where to find the best equipment.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do any birdwatching on your own. Finding your own answers to birdwatching questions can be very satisfying.
Occasionally you will find “good birds” that the local experts did not.
Just be happy with the chemistry you share with your birdwatching partners. Birdwatching is fun, and good birdwatcher relationships keep it that way.
Wear neutral colors when you go birdwatching
There is lots of advice on how to address when you go outdoors to watch birds.
Some experts will say that you should wear bright colors to attract the birds you want to see that like bright colors.
Wearing all red, for example, will in fact attract orioles. Goldfinches are attracted to yellow.
But for every bird that you can attract with bright colors, there is a bug you don’t want to attract (bees, for example, are attracted to blue) or another bird you’ll scare away.
Unless you have very specific varieties of birds you hope to see, you are better off wearing gray or brown when you go birdwatching. You don’t need to wear camouflage.
Be patient when you look for birds in trees
It can be hard to judge the distance and direction of a bird just by listening to its song. You may need to carefully search for the bird you hear in dense foliage.
The best way to look for birds in trees with lots of leaves is branch by branch.
Some birds can stand perfectly still while they are singing, so you won’t see them until they finish their song and take off from their perch.
The time to keep your eyes open is at the end of a bird’s song. Sometimes it’s better to find a rock, a ledge, or a boulder to stand on so you can see a bird’s take off from the top of a tree.
Check out the chickadees
Kinglets, warblers, vireos, and other migrating birds often scout out chickadees as they travel north and south.
Chickadees know everything about their woods, and they like company.
We don’t really know if birds can communicate with other species with their songs and chirps, but we do know that non-predatory migrating birds search out chickadees.
You should look for chickadees. They are fascinating to watch in their own right, and they can lead you to interesting birds.
What to if you see a rare bird
Every birdwatcher wants to be the first to find a rare bird.
But if you want other birdwatchers to believe you, here’s what you need to do:
- Take a photo, if you can. Sketch the bird in your field notebook, if you can’t.
- Write down every detail you can think of about the bird and where and when you saw it. Describe the feathers, the posture, and the shape and size of the bird. Use GPS to record where you saw it. Jot down what it was doing before and after you saw it, where it came from and where it flew to if it was in motion. Explain why you don’t think it was another species, noting the differences between those species and the bird you saw.
- If your state has a rare bird reporting form, keep a copy in your field guide and fill it out whenever you see a rare species.
- Check your field guide to make sure you recorded as many important facts as possible about the bird you saw.
When you are sure you identified the bird, let your local bird watching association know so they can protect it from crowds of gawking birdwatchers eager to duplicate your find.
Report the sighting to www.ebird.org. And keep your notes. You are sure to be asked questions about them!
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