How to Start Birding

By: Alan Holzer

March 29, 2022

Category: Big Year of Birds

So, you’re thinking about trying to get into birding? Good choice! Why?

  • You’ll be in good company. Birdwatching is an extremely popular pastime, engaging millions of people across the world.
  • It’s flexible. You can watch birds from your kitchen window or your car; you can watch birds while hiking, skiing or canoeing; or you can travel to different areas of the country to find birds.
  • It’s inexpensive. While there are things that birdwatchers find useful for the hobby, you can be a bird enthusiast by just using your eyes or ears; no equipment required.
  • It’s a great way to get connected to creatures of the natural world that are right outside your door!

What you need

The most important thing to have when birding is curiosity! The best birders take time to observe both what a bird looks like and what it’s doing. Ask questions, like: What colors do I see on this bird? How many are in the group? Where is that bird going next? While identifying bird species can be fun and challenging, there is much more to learn about each bird than just its name.

While many people enjoy birds without any equipment, others find that a pair of binoculars and some field guides or electronic resources make the hobby more satisfying.

To help you locate birds that are far away or high up in trees, look into binoculars. There are many resources out there for finding binoculars that are a good fit for you and your budget; the National Audubon Society has a guide that you may find helpful.

Many people enjoy the challenge of identifying birds and making lists of what they’ve seen. A good field guide is a birder’s friend, and can be carried anywhere. Field guides provide images of birds, their names and key traits that will help you differentiate between species. Field guides are organized in many ways: by color, local area, or bird family, for example. If you’re brand new to birding, I suggest looking at different guides in a library to see what works for you.

An example of a field guide, showing a photograph of a dark-eyed junco on the left page and a description on the right.
Two pages from the Birds of Minnesota Field Guide.

If you’re tech-inclined, there are many online bird resources that can help you ID birds. The Merlin app or Audubon Bird Guide app are both excellent and free. If you’re interested in helping science with your birding, eBird is an on-line platform that allows you to keep personal lists of what you’ve seen where, and also merges your sightings with others’ around the world to gain a big-picture view of how birds are migrating, how their populations are doing, and more. If you’re looking at more than just birds, iNaturalist is a way to find out what birds, and other animals and plants, have been sighted in your area, and has the benefit of a community that will help each other out with ID.

How to get started

Because birding is so flexible, there are many ways to begin this hobby. Many people start out at home by setting up birdfeeders and seeing which birds visit. Watching birdfeeders in the winter is a great way to get to know the “regulars” that live here all year. Then, you’ll be able to pick out the migrating birds when they show up in April or May. Chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers, and goldfinches are some of the most common feeder birds in our area of Minnesota.

A chickadee sits on the edge of a bird feeder.
"Chickadee at a Birdfeeder" by sonstroem is marked with CC BY 2.0. Modifications to this photo include cropping.

Another way to get started is to join a birdwatching group or take a class. Many nature centers offer regular bird hikes that are open to all skill levels. If you enjoy being social while you learn, this may be the route for you.

Or, you simply go for a walk! You’ll find more birds in some places than in others, and it can be hard to know where to look, but birds are almost everywhere.

Where and How to Look

  • You’ll see the most birds by visiting different types of habitats. Ponds, rivers and forest edges are attractive to a wide variety of birds. Visit at different seasons and times of day, and you’ll see even more. (If you're looking in Three Rivers parks, check out parts one and two of our "Where to Bird" blog series.)
  • To spot birds, find a place to sit or stand for a while. Try to look at a wide area all at once to notice what is moving. Once you spot something, you can focus on it with your eyes or binoculars.
  • Use your ears! Many people hear birds first, and then look for where the sound is coming from.
Ravens sit at the top of trees.
"Birds on treetop" by dejankrsmanovic, which is marked with CC BY 2.0. Modifications to this photo include cropping.

Once you have a bird in your sights, take as much time as you can to notice the details about it. After you’ve observed it for a while, you can turn to your field guide to try to find out what kind of bird you’ve been watching.

  • How big is it? Smaller than a soda can? Bigger than a duck?
  • What shape is its body? Is its tail particularly long or short? What shape is its head and beak?
  • What color patterns are on its body? Try to notice where the colors are located.

Birding can be overwhelming! There are over 200 species of birds in Minnesota alone, and some can be very difficult to tell apart. Give yourself permission to learn slowly and enjoy the experience, and soon you’ll know more than you ever thought you could.

Improving your birding

Starting a new hobby is fun, but can be challenging as well. If you’re struggling to see or ID birds, some of these tips may work for you.

  • Talk to other birders. Most people are happy to share their knowledge
  • Go birding with a friend. Having someone else to share your experiences with is invaluable. I, personally, have trouble finding birds visually, so I try to go birding with people who are good at seeing birds in the treetops or thick shrubbery.
  • Wake up early. While you don’t have to birdwatch in the morning, there is a reason that many people do: birds are much more active and easier to spot in the early morning hours.
  • If you like to go out walking to look for birds, don’t wear white or bright colors. Birds have great eyesight, so try to blend in to your surroundings to avoid scaring them away.
A boy wearing a baseball cap peers through binoculars, with a dam in the background.

How to respect birds

Birders usually care about the birds they are observing, but don’t always know the best ways to take care of birds and their habitats. Here are some good ways birdwatchers can take care of our feathered friends:

  • Leave young birds and nests alone. If parents are too scared to take care of their young, the eggs and chicks won’t make it. Young birds may look lost, but their parents are usually hiding close by.
  • Don’t lure birds in with recorded calls. Some birders use bird calls from their phones to bring birds closer in, but this can put the birds in danger from predators or stress.
  • Take trash with you. Plastic fibers, fishing line, and other litter can trap and kill birds.
  • Keep housecats indoors. Domestic cats in the U.S. kill more than 2 billion birds each year, and have a major negative impact on bird populations.
  • Keep birds from hitting your windows. Window can be invisible to birds, and if birds hit them at high speeds, they can be injured or killed. There are many ways to make your windows safe for birds.
A bird nest among branches with green leaves.
"Baby Birds in Nest" by slgckgc is marked with CC BY 2.0. Modifications to this photo include cropping.

Birding is a low-cost, highly engaging hobby that almost anyone can do. Whether you want to see unusual species or watch bird behaviors out your window, birds can be for you. Give it a try, and see if you don’t get hooked!

Check out more birding resources for Three Rivers’ Big Year of Birds.

About the Author

Alan, wearing a navy, knit beanie and wearing glasses, smiles in front of a tree.

Alan Holzer is a naturalist at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park, where he enjoys teaching about the Mississippi River and all of the wildlife that use it. He loves getting people excited about the outdoors and the amazing details of the natural world. He believes that everyone can find something in nature to love.


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