Updated: Mar 17
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Wildlife and bird enthusiasts often search for the "How to" guide for starting their quest towards bird-watching enjoyment. While these articles are informative, articulate, and helpful, they often overload the fledgling birder with too much information.
At Flocking Around, we do not flock around. We get straight to the point: less words, more help. Forthright. Direct. Linear. Candid. Frank. Concise. So, here it is, our guide to how to start bird-watching/birding:
Best Beginner's Field Guides for Birdwatching
Simply, I recommend "The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition." Why? Learning from drawings, where the birds are depicted in ideal light and position, is easiest. Easy is important; difficulty could lead to frustration and result in a stoppage of birding. And we here at FA do not want that! The "Sibley Guide" covers most of the birds expected in the continental United States. However, it is not built to fit into your pocket. If you need a pocket guide, then I recommend The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America or The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America." If you live in the Rocky Mountain or on the Pacific Coast, choose West, and if you reside east of the Rockies, take East.
Here is where the first mistake is made by the beginner birder. They make their purchase and begin flipping through the beautiful images, without understanding how to use the field guide.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DO LOOK AT ANY BIRDS WITHOUT READING PAGES ix through xxv.
Memorize the arrangement of the guide.
Which is a perfect segway to our next section...
Bird Taxonomy for Beginners
Birds, like all animals, are classified by their evolutionary relationships (aka taxonomy). Some people might refer to certain species being "related." Neither statements are very helpful without additional information. "Related" birds often share physical characteristics. When you learn the order of bird taxonomy:
using a field guide will be easier
identifying new species will be cake (use those shared physical characteristics)
impressing your nerdy friends will be a cinch
I recommend learning Orders and Families. Do you need to learn the technical names? No, but learn which birds are in which family. For example, the cardinal family is Cardinalidae, and the finch family is Fringillidae. Those words are not helpful to the beginner birder, BUT knowing that cardinals, tanagers, buntings, and grosbeaks are in the cardinal family IS important! Wait, what the flock? Aren't grosbeaks in the finch family as well? Yes. The sooner you can memorize these bird groups, the less confused you will be. There are only ~1,000 species of bird known to "occur" in the US. Easy peasy Lemon-bellied Flycatcher squeezy.
Here are two links to help you learn bird taxonomy of North America:
Binoculars for Birdwatching Beginners
Again, let's not overthink this one. I recommend starting cheap. Swarovski? Ignore 'em. Maven? Support local. But you are NEW. Why invest that much money into a hobby you may decide is not for you? Here is what I use to introduce all beginner birders: Celestron Outland 8x42. They are $60, above-average quality glass, sturdy, and most importantly, they show you birds. If you are working with a slightly larger budget, you might dip your toe in with the Celestron Trailseeker ED 8x42 Binoculars. WHOA! Two options. Memory overload!
On a more serious note, go cheaper binoculars. Unless you are a world-class tour guide, ornithologist, or have a hefty budget, the upper echelon of binocular glass is RARELY worth it. I have a pair of $250 nocs that have survived me for 9 years. I had a pair of $1000 nocs that broke in less than 12 months. (I'm looking at you, Zeiss.) If this is not your profession, do not waste money on optics like it is.
Birding Apps for Beginners
No introduction to bird-watching would be complete without providing you additional bits of information to aid this new endeavor. For the technologically advanced, or minimally the "not-helpless," apps and websites can be a boon. Here are two free apps and three helpful sites to act as your safety net, when all else goes wrong.
Birders and birdwatchers often use a variety of unique lingo. We cannot cover all the expansive terminology here, so we direct you to our post on Birding Lingo to learn more!
Purchase "The Sibley Guide to Birds"
READ "ix - xxv" of Sibley Guide
Purchase $60 Celestron binoculars
Download Merlin and/or Audubon
Visit some birding websites