With birding, just like any new hobby, it is easy to jump in too fast and get frustrated. You must realize that watching birds takes patience and perseverance. Not all birds are particularly accommodating. So, start with the ones that are. For the very basics, first read this “how-to guide.”
Go into your backyard and sit with your newly acquired bird guide and binoculars. Before you pick up your binoculars, take in the ‘what’ and ‘where’ facts.
Some facts about your surroundings to note:
- What time of year is it? The season will affect what your birds look like. If it is spring the male birds will be at their most colourful.
- What kind of habitat do you live in? Are there many trees? Do you live near the ocean? Or in a desert?
Start with very general aspects about the birds you see:
- Shape and Size: Compare them to a bird you maybe already know (like a pigeon) or to objects (ex. That bird is round like an orange, and that one is uneven like a pear.)
- Color: Maybe take a few notes just as reminders. Remember, two birds with different colors could still be the same species.
- Flight: When the birds fly away from your feeder, do they fly in a straight line or undulating?
- On the Ground: Do they hop on the ground or walk like small dinosaurs?
Do not skip these steps. It is easy to look at a bird and think, “Yes, I will remember exactly what that bird looks like.” But, as soon as you look in your guide, that perfect image in your head will dissolve. It sometimes helps to say the distinguishing characteristics aloud when you are still looking at the bird.
These are the general details that will make it easier to look up the birds in your guide. Take a few minutes right now to look over your guide. It is a good idea to spend lots of quality time reading your guide, so you know exactly how to use it and what everything means.
Use whatever kind of guide appeals to you. Some guides are arranged by color, so a black bird will be listed with all black birds in your area. This is a good place to start; however, once you are more skilled, it is a good idea to move on to a guide arranged by types of birds (i.e. finches, sparrows, raptors, etc). A particularly good one is the Field Guide to the Birds of North America by David Sibley.
Now you are ready to take in the real details of the birds. Here are some general guidelines for these more specific areas:
- Beak: The size and shape of a bird’s beak will tell you what kind of food it eats. Is it long and narrow like a hummingbird or short and robust like a finch?
- Wings: How long are the wings in comparison with the body? Are they short? Maybe the bird doesn’t fly at all like a penguin.
- Tail: How long is the tail? Does it have a blunt or a pointed end?
- Proportions: Try to notice the overall proportions of all parts of the bird. Does it have a long thin neck like a flamingo or can you hardly see it has a neck?
- Color: Go beyond what you saw in your first glances. Maybe the bird has a blue back and yellowy underbelly, or a black mask with white on its wings.
You are now well on your way to becoming a skilled birder. Just keep practicing.