Thrill, Bliss, Social, and Solitude – All Part of Birding, A Rapidly Growing Outdoor Hobby


Story at-a-glance -

  • A “birder” is anyone who has taken a trip one mile or more from their home for the primary purpose of observing birds, or who has closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home
  • There are an estimated 48 million birders in the US (that’s 21 percent of the population)
  • The vast majority of birders (about 88 percent) are “backyard birders,” meaning they primarily watch birds around their homes
  • While there are over 800 species of birds in North America, there are probably at least 100 species in your area, making your own backyard (or a local park or forest preserve) an ideal place to start bird-watching
  • To get started bird-watching, grab a pair of binoculars, a field guide (a book that describes birds), and a notebook (to record your sightings); set out early, near dawn, when birds are most active, and take care not to disturb their natural habitats

By Dr. Becker

The US is home to a significant number of birdwatchers, or birders as they’re technically called. A birder, according to The National Survey, is anyone who has taken a trip one mile or more from their home for the primary purpose of observing birds, or who has closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home.

If you’ve noticed birds while doing some gardening, and wondered what they are, you wouldn’t qualify as a “birder,” nor would you be counted if you went to a zoo and observed birds in captivity. Even with this rather strict definition, there are an estimated 48 million birders in the US (that’s 21 percent of the population!), according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).1

Surprisingly, due to incurring trip-related and equipment-related expenses, birders have a significant impact on the economy, generating $82 billion in total industry output in one year alone (which includes both direct and indirect expenditures associated with bird watching). Birding also created 671,000 jobs and $28 billion in employment income, according to the FWS report.

Of course, the economic incentive for your community is likely the last reason you would take up birding. The past-time, which is said to be among the fastest growing outdoor activities in the US, is gaining so many new devotees because of the thrill and enjoyment it brings.

Why Do People Watch Birds?

People have been watching birds since ancient times, for pleasure and because they were believed to be predictors of the future. Even today, birds are often used as indicators of environmental conditions (ever hear the term “canary in the coalmine”?). As reported by

“Historically, they [birds] used to be considered omens. The ancient Romans believed that the flights and calls of birds could foretell the future. Today, modern science still uses birds as a kind of oracle. Changes in bird populations can reflect the health of the environment.

Some birds are indicator species, like the USA's national bird, the bald eagle. They forecast environmental conditions. The knowledge of birds can help us plan a better, more sustainable relationship with nature.”

On a more personal level, people watch birds for a variety of reasons, including:3

The thrill of the “hunt” Family bonding (birding is an activity enjoyed by all ages)
Social connections (many communities have active birding clubs) Health (birding gets you outdoors and active, instead of sitting on your couch)
Solitude (while birding can be done in groups, it can also be done on your own. Many find birding to be an almost meditative, stress-relieving pursuit.) Knowledge (amateur birders often contribute scientific knowledge that furthers the field of ornithology, or the study of birds)

You Can Start Birding Right in Your Own Backyard

The vast majority of birders (about 88 percent) are what’s known as “backyard birders,” meaning they primarily watch birds around their homes. While there are over 800 species of birds in North America, there are probably at least 100 species in your area,4 making your own backyard (or a local park or forest preserve) an ideal place to start.

If you intend to bird-watch in your backyard, invest in a bird feeder and a birdbath (and perhaps a birdhouse or two) to help attract different bird species. By offering different types of feed that appeal to different birds, you’ll be able to lure multiple species near your home.

Some birders take it a step further and construct brush piles in their backyard to provide extra habitat for birds, or plant certain flowers in their garden known to attract birds.

If you’re interested, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an online interactive mapping tool called YardMap to help you build bird habitats and welcome more birds into your own backyard.5

Really, though, if you want to give birding a try, you don’t need much to get started. Part of the beauty of bird-watching is its simplicity, after all. Here are some tips to consider before you head out, though, including the few items that will be necessary:6

1. Get a Pair of Binoculars

Binoculars can be pricey, so this may be the biggest investment for an amateur birder first starting out. Look for binoculars with a 7x or 8x magnification. Roof prisms are general preferable to porro prisms (but they are also more expensive).

Another factor to consider is their weight, since you’ll be wearing them around your neck much of the time. Another option is to borrow a pair until you’re sure birding is for you.

2. Obtain a Field Guide

A field guide is a book of birds that will be specific to your geographical region. While most experienced birders believe a hard-copy field guide is essential to have on hand, there are also apps you can put on your smartphone to help you identify birds. One such app is Merlin Bird ID, which identifies birds based on their size, markings, color, behaviors, and more. If you’re into technology, you can even bird-watch via Web cam!

3. Do Your Homework

Before you head out, you may want to browse through your field guide and get familiar with birds in your area. Study the birds’ markings, calls and habitats, as well as their locations at different times of the year, so you can identify them more quickly when you’re out in the field.

4. Join a Birding Group

This isn’t necessary, but many enjoy joining birding groups. You can find both official and unofficial groups, depending on your location, which often organize group walks. Because these walks are often lead by experienced birders, it’s a wonderful learning opportunity if you’re just starting out. There are also bird-watching magazines you might want to subscribe as well.

5. Get a Birding Notebook

You’ll need a journal to record what birds you see, where you saw them and also their descriptions. The more detailed your notes are, the easier it will be to identify the bird, and, as you write your description, it will encourage careful observation.

Once you notice patterns in your notebook, you can set goals for birds you have yet to spot, and even make sub-lists of birds based on where they’re found (your neighborhood, your city) or what time of year you’re most likely to spot them.

Some birders even bring a camera along to capture images of the birds they spot, although this often requires more investment in a tripod and telephoto lens. If you like, you can also get a birding vest, which has pockets to store your binoculars, field guide, and notebook all in one spot.

6. Set Out Early

The early bird gets the worm! Most birds are very active searching for food at dawn, so make it a point to set out for bird-watching as the sun rises. Your local Audubon chapter likely has recommendations for birding walks or viewing locations in your area, making them an ideal place to contact for more information about the best bird-watching spots.

Proper Birding Etiquette

Yes, there is etiquette to bird watching, especially if you’ll be going along with a group. First and foremost, don’t disturb the birds. Birders watch birds in their natural, wild habitat, and respect both their space and living environments, so avoid making loud noises or shining lights in their direction. You should also take care not to disturb nests or feeding areas, or lure birds toward areas that might put them in danger. The National Audubon Society explains:7

Bear in mind that in order to find most birds you will be encroaching on their territory, so tread lightly and respect boundaries… Silence is golden. The keen senses of birds alert them to your presence, often long before you have a chance to see them. Whether alone or in a group, walk as quietly as possible and whisper. Take cues from the leader who might signal for quiet as the group approaches a bird. Quiet walks will also help when listening for bird calls… Take extra care when in a potential or active nesting area. It is hard enough for birds to compete with each other for mates and space; human interference causes additional stress.”

Of course, birding should also be fun, so try not to get so caught up in spotting your next rare bird that you forget to enjoy the moment. put it well:8

Birding is a quest. You set out to see birds -- but the prize you come back with can only be described as happiness. Learning to bird is like getting a lifetime ticket to the theater of nature.”

Finally, birding, or watching birds in the wild, is very different from owning a bird as a pet. If you’re considering the latter, be sure to read The 10 Best and Worst Reasons to Get a Pet Bird.