First, you probably already know more than you think you do. It is virtually impossible to know ABSOLUTELY nothing about birds. So, start where you are. And get to know the birds you already recognize even better.
Look for movement. Listen. Before you can identify birds, you have to find them first.
Then start asking questions about what you see or hear.
The first thing to observe is their size.
A Robin makes a good measure. Once you know a Robin, ask yourself if the bird you are looking at is smaller than a Robin? Bigger than a Robin, but smaller than a Crow? Crow-sized or bigger?
Then, where is the bird and what is it doing?
Is it a small bird darting from tangle to tangle?
Is it long legged, standing in water? Is it soaring overhead, wings extended?
Habitat is a helpful clue, but birds do not read the books and do not always land or stay where the authorities think they are “supposed” to be.
Then look at the bill, the wing, the tail, the way the bird moves, what it does.
Birding by ear is perfectly legit. But it takes practice to hear birds at first. Chances are you have already put in a lot of unconscious effort trying to ignore the extreme noise pollution around human neighborhoods. But paying attention to sound pays off.
If you are in your house or car, you can look out from behind glass without disturbing birds, and you may get reasonably good looks even with the naked eye. But it does require patience. So yes, binoculars are very helpful. As a near-sighted person I would never have been able to become interested in birds if I had not had a good pair of binoculars. And for stealth and distant viewing a telescope is even better. But some people just bird with a camera, which has the virtue of documentation at the same time. And even the blind can bird by ear, learning songs and calls.
When it comes to identification, the newest thing is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin app. It will ask you a few simple questions, and give you photos to choose from, that help you identify what you are seeing based on what is most common or likely where you are. There are lots of on-line resources.
Some of us old-school types still prefer a field guide, of which there are many. We enjoy just looking at the pictures even if we haven’t seen all the birds yet. Sometimes a surprising record or rarity has been discovered by someone who just happened to have looked at a colorful bird illustration and recognized it in a completely unexpected place.
For beginning I still like the Roger Tory Peterson guides best, for the little arrows pointing to the salient differences, and the ease of flipping pages to look for similar patterns. It made me look harder at certain differences, and to tease out which details to look for.
It takes a while to amass mental reference points for all the families of birds, but once you have a rough idea, then you can start delving into more detail. This is a skill, which requires practice, which is rewarding because it takes effort, and is therefore a real thing.
Birding is also useful as a point for developing critical thinking. People want a “special” bird, a totem, a message. But setting out to find a particular bird is often a quest doomed to disappointment, even if someone else has recently seen one. “Did not see an Eagle again today,” might diminish what would otherwise be a very rich experience of a dozen or more well-seen species. It is the sense of discovery, of going out to look with an open mind, that is the essence of birding.
Birds have wings and they use them. So, the bird you see is your bird. It is not easy to see a bird well. A good clear look is a gift of the moment, an experience shared by you and the bird.
There is no such thing as an un-interesting bird, so don’t be disappointed by common ones. Pigeons inspired Darwin as much as Finches; Song Sparrows provided Margaret Morse Nice with a life’s work. Any species may enable someone to make an interesting discovery about something.
The “wishful thinking” test is also useful. A brief glimpse might tease the brain into thinking it is a particularly desired rare bird. But ask yourself, “What if I wanted the opposite? What would be the more common, more likely interpretation or outcome?” This has obvious real-life uses as a planning strategy, too.
One last thing to remember: Nothing is impossible! But the improbable requires documentation.
And a warning: birding can become habit-forming, providing hours of simple pleasure in the outdoors.
Text and photos by Ginger Andrews.