Updated: Apr 1
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:
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Best Beginner's Field Guide 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 North America north of Mexico. 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 Mountains or on the Pacific Coast, choose West, and if you reside east of the Rockies, take East.
Before I offer additional advice, I want to share the story of the "Golden Sibley" that is featured above. The "Eastern Sibley" you see at the beginning of this post was my first field guide. I purchased it when I took my first bird class, and it traveled everywhere with me. One day, during a trip to some sewage lagoons, the Sibley fell out the van door, bounced seven (yes, SEVEN) times, and tumbled into the filth that was the sewage lagoons.
While I adored my first field guide, I accepted its fate within seconds of hitting the green and brown fluid that we will call water. I was done with it. Time for a new guide. However, a kind soul named Chris fished the book out of the lagoon with his foot and a zip lock baggy. I appreciated this herculean effort and make no mistake, that is not sarcasm. Only Hercules would dare to enter Hades just like Chris' foot did. However, the guide was dead to me. I could never clean the pages enough to feel I was not about to give myself pinkeye, or worse. I mean, we are talking about the sewage lagoons from a college town. I saw what floated in those lagoons of despair.
This tale does not end there, though. Another kind-hearted soul, Garrett, leaped into action and said he'd like to experiment on this crappy version of Sibley. His idea? Cook that bad boy with an autoclave. What is an autoclave you ask? Autoclaves are often used to sterilize equipment and supplies by subjecting them to pressurized, saturated steam, at 250 °F (121 °C) for an extended amount of time.
While I had no hope for this procedure, it cost me nothing to let Garrett give it the college try. After several days, he handed me a waxy, golden, slightly shriveled field guide with the word "Sibley" in bold letters at the top. The autoclave disinfected the book, and now I have a field guide, golden in color, sitting atop my bookshelf as a conversation piece. That poor guide deserved such a luxurious retirement.
Back to learning birdwatching.
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. Here are two critical steps to fully utilizing your new 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, right?
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!
If you want to have a wide variety of options, check out our Budget Binocular List on Amazon.
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 nockies 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 birdwatching 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.
Feeding Birds for Beginners
Which feeder should you purchase when you are just starting into the birdwatching world? Budget-friendly and flexible feeders. For us, the platform feeder is the optimal bird feeder. Why? Diversity, variety, and flexibility! Platform feeders allow for: a diversity of bird sizes to utilize the feeder, a variety of foods depending on the bird species you want to attract, and flexibility for the location of the feeder. Plus, platform feeders do not require birds to put their heads into "feeding ports." Feeder ports can help in the spread of disease in bird populations and can be difficult to clean properly, which is why I suggest platform feeders. As you grow in your bird knowledge and love of birds at your home, graduate to other feeders! Read about all of our suggestions for bird feeders!
If you want a multitude of options, visit our Amazon Storefront. We provide wayyy too many bird feeder ideas, there.
And of course, we would be amiss if we did not remind everyone to CLEAN YOUR FREAKING BIRDFEEDERS!
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! It can be very helpful, especially when jerks like me use the term "nockies." Or it can be confusingly hilarious!
Final Thoughts for Birdwatching Beginners
Visit our Amazon "Birdwatching Beginner's List"
READ "ix - xxv" of Sibley Guide
Purchase $60 Celestron binoculars
Download Merlin and/or Audubon
Visit some birding websites
Watch our Basic Bird ID post!