Try Birding

By Richard J. Nevle

Think of birding as an invitation to pay attention to the world around you. Think of it as a practice of observing and noticing. Think of it as a way to connect to our avian companions, a way of being close to a part of nature that’s available wherever we are, whether it be in a city park or a quiet forest. Birding can take us out of ourselves and our daily worries. It can bring us joy and a sense of connection. It can reawaken a sense of childlike curiosity and wonder, and most of all, it can be fun. 

If you think you’d like to try out birding, you’ll obviously need to find a place where you can watch birds. But finding birds to observe might be easier than you think. One of the most satisfying places to start birding is right where you live, perhaps on a walk around your neighborhood or in a nearby park, or perhaps even as you sit quietly in your backyard with a cup of tea or coffee by your side. Starting locally enables you to become familiar with your feathered neighbors—species of birds you may have lived among for years, even decades, but maybe never took time to really pay attention to before. When I started birding a few years ago, I was stunned by the diversity of birds that I could find in the urban park a few blocks from home: woodpeckers, goldfinches, phoebes, bushtits, vireos, kinglets, titmice, hawks, owls, warblers, wrens, many kinds of sparrows—just to name a few! It astonished me just how much wildness could exist in the middle of a big, bustling city.

What do you need to start birding? 

  • Binoculars: It can be very helpful to have a good pair of binoculars. These needn’t be expensive. One important factor to consider when choosing binoculars is the field of view, which refers to how much area the binoculars’ lenses permit you to see at a given distance. The bigger the binoculars’ field of view, the easier it is to zero in on the birds you’ve spotted by naked eye. Another important factor when selecting binoculars is weight: you’ll want to go light so your arms don’t tire out as you follow some lovely bird flitting through tree branches or winging across the sky. Before you make a purchase, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s excellent website, All About Birds, which provides some more detailed guidelines for choosing the right birding binoculars as well as lots of other resources for beginning birders. 
  • Books and apps: Another essential item is a good birding book. It should include clear, detailed illustrations of individual bird species, maps showing how their distributions vary by season, and descriptions that highlight behaviors and physical features most useful for identifying them. Among my favorite birding books are the beautifully illustrated guides by David Sibley as well as his books Sibley’s Birding Basics and What’s It Like to Be a Bird. Another item you might find helpful is the Merlin birding app, which is available for free from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Among the app’s many useful features is its uncanny ability to identify bird species just from their songs and calls. And last but not least, a small pocket journal can be useful for recording your birding observations.

While there’s no doubt that learning to identify individual bird species can be a rewarding part of birding, identification isn’t really the point, especially when you’re starting out. Rather, learning to bird is about learning to pay closer attention to birds you encounter in your daily life. What are they doing? How do their behaviors and activities change with the seasons? Who are the birds living in your neighborhood all year round, and who among them visit for only a short while, perhaps for only a single day? 

Try birding. You might rediscover how each of us—birds and people alike—are part of a living world that’s still wild and miraculous despite the many environmental challenges we face. You might find birds opening a door to nature that’s been waiting for you all along.

Photo credit: Female western bluebird perched on a sycamore branch near the author’s home in San José, California. Photo: Richard J. Nevle

Richard J. Nevle is the author of The Paradise Notebooks: 90 Miles across the Sierra Nevada. His essays have appeared in Orion, Real Ground, and The National Catholic Reporter. Nevle serves as the deputy director of the Earth Systems Program at Stanford University.

Throughout the “Active You” section of this blog, we will introduce you to ideas on staying active and learning new things. 

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