Birding 101: It’s Way Easier Than You Think
Most “how to start birding” articles tell you that the first thing you need to do is buy or download something. Yes, binoculars and apps and books can help you get very good at identifying an ever-increasing array of birds, but you don’t actually need them to get a lot of joy and fulfillment out of birding. All you need is a window—maybe a front door—and a bit of focus.
Why “birding” rather than “birdwatching”
The term “birding” is more inclusive and better describes the process of observing birds. We don’t just see birds—we often hear them first, and many times sound is the only way we perceive a bird in our immediate vicinity. “Birdwatching” flattens that to a purely visual experience that isn’t available to birders who live with vision impairment or for whom staring at objects through binoculars might cause dizziness or headaches.
How do I become a birder?
By noticing birds! That sounds simple, but it takes some practice. Many people walk through New York City and say that the only birds they ever see are pigeons. That may be true, but if you knew what to pay attention to, even a brand-new birder could see or hear five bird species: those city pigeons (aka feral rock pigeon), mourning dove, house sparrow, European starling, and herring gull.
Birds are making noise around you all the time. That bird singing at 3 a.m.? It’s probably a northern mockingbird. The distinct sound of an ocean bird? That’s a herring gull. High-pitched twittering near dusk? Look up and you’ll see the dark sickle shapes of chimney swifts. The bird yelling “pew pew pew” like it’s shooting lasers at you? That’s a northern cardinal, the male of which is intensely red with a bright orange beak, one of NYC’s most striking birds.
Where do I look?
Many birds spend time tucked away for protection from predators, so check out the lower portions of trees, and in and under shrubs. Pay attention to noises you hear, or movements you see. Also look for birds perched on building ledges. At local parks with ponds, you can spend time with big, slow-moving birds like ducks and geese.
OK, but how do I know what I’m seeing or hearing?
This is an excellent question! The first thing we want to stress is that it’s not important to learn birds’ names at this stage—just get used to building your observation skills.
For the most common birds, just knowing its size and being able to recognize some basic details, or “field marks,” can get you quickly to an identification. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- How big is the bird, in relation to a pigeon? Bigger, smaller, same size?
- What kind of shape is it? Kind of round or plump, or longer and skinnier?
- What color is it? Is the bird all one color, or does it have splashes of color, like orange, pink, red, yellow, or blue? If so, where are they on the bird’s body?
- Where do you see the bird? If it’s standing still while staring at some water, it’s probably a heron. Swimming on a lake means it’s likely a duck, goose, or swan. Birds soaring overhead are usually hawks, vultures, or gulls.
Walk me through a bird ID.
Sure thing! Here’s how to ID three of the most common non-pigeon birds you’ll encounter in NYC:
It’s important to note that, like with the house sparrow, for some birds the males and females display different characteristics. Northern cardinals and mallards are two other abundant species where the sexes look quite different. Field guides and apps can help you here.
How do I know the species of the bird I’m encountering?
There are some great field guides and free apps to help pin down the exact species of bird you’ve noticed. Two excellent ones are the Merlin bird ID app and the National Audubon Society bird guide app. If you like flipping through books, you can get The Sibley Guide to Birds.
Many birders document the birds they see by keeping a journal, putting a checkmark next to the species in their bird guides, or using apps like eBird. If that’s your thing, great! Use whatever works best for you. But if listing feels onerous, don’t do it! Birding is supposed to bring you joy, so you’re free to reject anything that doesn’t serve that end.
OK, that’s nice and all. But I want to see those pretty warblers that everyone talks about.
This, my friend, is the point where you’ve leveled up in your birding (congratulations!) and you will need to buy binoculars. Most warblers, vireos, etc., are very small, very fast, and they love hanging out high up in trees.
You can read this binocular guide to get a sense of what’s out there. We know many birders who use Nikon Pro-Staff 3 8×42, which will run you about $120 and are a great balance of quality, price, and ease of use.
Finding Your Flock
One last thing we’ll leave you with—it’s so much faster to learn the tricks of birding by going out with other people. Multiple groups in New York City offer free birding opportunities year-round, and most are geared to or suitable for beginners. Some are generalist clubs, while others seek to create safer spaces for particular groups of people who have not always been welcomed in the outdoors. You can find a growing list of birding communities on our Resources for Birders page. Pick whichever group fits your needs!
This author started out birding in New York City as a solitary pursuit as a way to reconnect with nature. But I’ll be honest that I also birded alone because I had a couple of negative early experiences with other birders and nobody has time for that kind of b.s. in their lives. When I finally found a group of supportive birders with Feminist Bird Club, who embraced birding as a practice—as a way to collectively uplift each other while learning—it was literally life-changing. My birding skills improved dramatically because we shared our knowledge or we learned together on the fly, and I’m now a pretty good birder. I also found a pretty great community—and some truly wonderful friends.
I’ve heard similar stories from other birders who found their flock in one or more of these birding clubs or groups, so if one group isn’t working for you, try another one. Or just gather a couple of curious friends and go on your own journey together! Honestly, there’s no one “right” way to bird: Whatever works for you (and is respectful to the birds and other people) is always the right way.
Good luck and good birding!
Brooklyn Botanic Garden will be hosting a number of guided birding events throughout the summer and fall, in case you’d like to get in some birding and plant appreciation at the same time. You can find the schedule at bbg.org/forthebirds.
Martha Harbison is the senior network content editor for the National Audubon Society.