For the Birds—Part Two: Birdwatching Basics

In the March 31 article, Bird Course—Part One: Birdwatching Basics, I mentioned that no special equipment is needed to get started.  Birds can be found in and around any outdoor area—anywhere they can find food sources, nesting materials, or shelter.

Each species has its own needs and habits, and you can see birds in and around trees, shrubs, fields, parks, lawns, roadsides, and any water course.  Birds perch on fences, rooftops, porch railings, power lines, and just-washed cars.  And, of course, birds fly from place to place, singly and in large flocks.  It’s seldom difficult to find birds.

Although you don’t need any equipment to watch birds, there are a few items you might find helpful:

Bird guides.  If you’re interested in identifying the birds you see, or learning more about them, a bird guide is helpful.  A bird book that identifies the most common birds in your region or province is best for beginners.  I started with, and still refer to, Stoke’s Beginner’s Guide to Birds, available for Eastern or Western regions.  With its colour-coded pages, the Stoke’s guides identify about 100 of the most common birds seen in either half of North America.  Having a physical book provides a convenient place for jotting notes about sightings.

Online guides are another good resource for identifying birds.  I use Cornell’s site when I need help identifying less-common birds.  Online guides provide multiple photos and maps, audio clips of songs and sounds, plus advice for identifying and feeding birds.  You can also download mobile bird-identification apps to your smartphone, such as Cornell’s Merlin app.

Binoculars.  Birds startle easily and it can be challenging to get a close-up view.  Binoculars allow you to observe birds at a distance without disturbing them.  They also allow you get a closer look at birds in inaccessible (to you) places, like treetops or on ponds.  Lightweight compact binoculars that are easy to tuck into a pocket run in the $20 to $30 range (with a kids’ version around $15.)  From there, the prices increase along with features and quality.  You can find good selections at hardware, hunting, or outdoors stores.

Camera.  Although not essential, using a camera to photograph birds can help you with bird identification.  Birds move quickly, leaving observers little time to note all those details that help with species identification.  Having a photo allows you to check all a bird’s features with your bird guide long after the bird has left.  A smartphone camera is adequate but a camera with adjustable shutter speed is even better to avoid blurry photos of fleeing birds.

Feeders.  You will see birds even without providing any birdfeed.  However, if you put out birdseed, you will attract more birds, giving you an opportunity to view birds close to where you live.  Before considering buying a bird feeder, check your local bylaws as some municipalities have restrictions on bird feeding.  If you live in a rental unit, you’ll also need to check if your landlord permits birdfeeders.  Finally, if you live in or near bear country, check your provincial Ministry of Natural Resources guidelines regarding birdfeeders and bears.  We only put out birdseed from November to early April, to avoid attracting bears, raccoons, and other nuisance animals.

A basic mixed-seed birdfeeder can be found at dollar stores for a couple bucks.  They won’t last more than a season or two, but it’s an inexpensive way to start.  Better-quality feeders can be found, along with various types of birdseed, at hardware stores, and at feed & seed outlets.  Most bags of birdseed will indicate what types of birds they attract.  Make sure the feeder you get is suitable for the type of seed you intend to use—the feeder label will usually indentify if it is best for mixed-seed, sunflower, or nyjer seeds, or other types of birdfeed.

For a low-price, low-tech option, go without a feeder and sprinkle a bit of bird seed on a railing or windowsill.  Or re-purpose another item to hold seed, like the metal lid of a pickle jar or an aluminum pie plate.  Just be sure to use birdseed, and never bread crumbs—bread has no nutritional value for birds and can have negative effects on their health.

Friends.  One of the best resources for novice birdwatchers is someone with more bird-watching experience.  If you can find a friend or neighbour who watches birds, they can provide valuable advice on bird identification and bird feeding.  My husband and I have been watching birds for decades, and friends often email us photos of birds asking for identification help.  Birdwatchers form a community, and its members enjoy helping each other.

Birdwatching allows you to choose how much or how little time and resources you want to spend pursuing it.  All you really need to do is look outside.