How & Why to Love Birds: A Q&A

A cedar waxwing outside my house, January 2021. I’m furious it took me this long to notice I was sharing a home with so many terrific birds.

It is spring again now, and the world looks a lot like it did during those weeks last year when I decided I wanted to learn more about birds. New and unimagined shades of green come daily from branches and soil, and I am remembering how last spring was the first I truly noticed this all happening in such detail. I remember the birds very well, because that’s what I was looking for. But scanning the trees for migrants, I am also remembering the leaves in each stage of their growth to the day, when I first noticed birds among them. These memories are unusually vivid. They tie this week to the same week a year ago, connecting me to the past—or, more precisely, to the cycles of being that remind me there is more than the present—in a way that lends the present a more satisfying weight. For this reason, among so many others, I would like to persuade you to try birding as well.

Why bird?

None of this zealotry is just about the birds, or even just the birds + the trees. Their greatest gift to me has been a lens through which so much else delightful about our world (and being alive in it) becomes visible. Birds are a reason and an excuse to walk slowly and silently through the woods on a beautiful morning at all times of year. Looking for and listening for birds absolutely takes me out of my body and head, turning me into a being of pure perception. I have never been so successful in spending hours by myself and been so unbothered by my typically bothersome inner monologue as when I’m birding. I have always been aware of how much I would benefit from meditating, for reasons that ironically make meditating very difficult for me. Birding, or the extended noticing of birds, is as close to success as I have come in this regard. Many meditation exercises center the idea of finding a grounding element to intentionally turn and return the mind’s focus towards: Sometimes the breath, or heartbeats, or a meaningful series of words. For me and for so many birders I know, birds are a way to ground the mind squarely in the present.

I first regarded birds as a dynamic element in an otherwise static landscape, one made more static than ever for many of us by the pandemic. But once you notice all the things you have to notice to notice birds, you realize very little about the landscape is actually as static as you thought. Looking for birds means looking at trees and bushes and the sky and seeing things there that provoke questions, inspire awe, and furnish joy.

And the birds came along at just the right time for me: In the middle of law school, and with a global pandemic just beginning, birding made a quiet space in which to reclaim the time and sense of self I had sacrificed trying to be a good law student the prior 20 months. It sharpened my sense of what I was doing and what I wanted to give and receive from my career. It has given me a more definite and intimate sense of connection to the place I call home. It returned me to writing on my own terms, after ditching a career and self-concept as a writer. And—this is for others to judge, primarily—I think birding also made me a better person. Or at least a person I more enjoy being.

Birding didn’t begin the moment I set hands on binoculars, or on the day my field guide arrived. Four years ago, I spent a month hiking with a dear friend and fellow birder, who began pointing out birds as we hiked. I spent the next three years vaguely more aware of birds than I had been. But it wasn’t until last March, early in the 14 months I would go on to spend staring out that front window, that I noticed a small brown bird hopping around in the driveway and realized it was a stranger to me. I began googling things like “small brown bird, north carolina,” and eventually made my first ID: It was a Carolina Wren, an extremely common but extremely charming creature. I began scanning my surroundings for more birds more intentionally, and I realized just how much was going on.

Since last April, I have produced at intervals (sometimes regular, sometimes less so) a newsletter centered around collections of sounds I record with my iPhone 8 while I’m out and about. Sometimes that means just outside on my patio or through the open window in my bedroom. Other times it has meant somewhere deep in the Great Smoky Mountains or on a remote lakeshore. Throughout I have packaged these sounds with reflections on both the ecology and the circumstances of the places I recorded them and the sensations of being there. Much of what I have written in this guide is summarized and condensed from this past year of reflection on birding, and so it may sound a little familiar if you’ve read any of what I’ve already written about birds. But migration is in full swing now, and so I have written this in somewhat of a hurry, hoping to get it out in the world by mid-April so that it might encourage (or at least has the opportunity to encourage) at least one person to give birding a shot. It may not be especially artful, but I hope it is helpful.

A Birding Q&A

I should start by saying that I am not an expert birder, and even if I were, my sense of “how to bird” is neither definitive nor exclusive of other people’s senses of how birding is best done. But I have written down some of what I have found out, and I hope that it contains sufficient insight to at least convince you that birding is something you can do and enjoy and ultimately make your own!

Q: Do I need to get binoculars?

A: Binoculars enhance every step of the birding process, especially early on, by making it easier to learn and distinguish birds’ field markings. And yet: So much birding can be done and enjoyed without binoculars. I have enjoyed the challenge of learning to identify birds both by ear and visually at greater distances by relying on information such as habitat, time of year, and behavior to supplement what little the naked eye is able to behold. Binoculars are an important tool, but I encourage you not to limit “birding” to those moments when they’re available. Birding is certainly an outing with friends and a walk around a forest, but it is also picking out a new spring song from your front porch as you drink your coffee. Birding is more of a state of mind than a set of tools.

Binoculars are expensive. I have a pretty standard pair of “beginner” binoculars: the Celestron Nature DX’s, typically priced between $100–$130, but it took me a few months of birding with an old pair from my mom’s house to convince myself to shell out for them. Decent budget pairs can be had for as little as $30; I did a lot of good birding with such a pair the first three months I birded, so if that’s what’s in your price range, no worries! 8x42 is the magnification/field-of-view combo I see most often in birding binoculars, but I’ll admit binoculars are something I know relatively little about. The 8 refers to the magnification factor (8x) and the 42 determines the width of — and thus the size of the field you can see through—the lenses. A bigger number means you can see more. Travel binoculars, for instance, might also have 8x magnification but only a 30mm lens width. More magnification (say, 10x) gets you closer, but you sacrifice a certain amount of image stability. More powerful binoculars tend to be bigger and heavier, which matters if you’re going to be out for a while.

Q: How do I learn all the birds?

A: Noticing the fact of a bird is tremendous fun, and that may very well be all you’re after. But if you are curious and would like to identify birds and learn more about them, I recommend being particularly intentional about the way you notice birds.

Next time you see any bird, known or unknown, try to remember a few things about it: How big was it? What shape was its beak? What was it doing? What colors was it? Did it have any notable markings? And apart from noticing particular birds, work to notice habitats and the birds you tend to see within them. How many different bird sounds can you pick out this morning around your house? A block away? What birds are you seeing in the same kinds of trees over and over? Which birds are on the ground? How often are the same sounds repeated? Can you hear more than one bird making the same sound? What are the birds doing at different times of day? Are things quieter at noon than at 3 p.m.? What about when it’s raining? Sunny? Overcast? Understanding the relationships between certain birds and certain habitats will likewise help you narrow things down in most cases if you’re trying to ID a new or unfamiliar bird.

And so on! Answers to these questions are useful for making an ID, but noticing the finer details of common birds you’re already familiar with will help you ID those birds with less information. This is important if, for example, you’re looking for summer tanagers but don’t want to have to do a thorough check of every cardinal. Less instrumentally, knowing enough things about birds and where you’ll find them ultimately adds up to them having personalities of a sort, which generally enriches the experience of seeing them.

I also suggest downloading an app called “Merlin” if you have a smartphone. Merlin helps you identify unknown birds by asking you a series of questions and then presenting you with a list of likely birds based on your answers, using the time of year and your location data to narrow down your options. This app is fed by birders’ data submitted via eBird, which I’ll get into below.

Though not strictly necessary, I will say I sort of mark the beginning of my time as a serious birder with my purchase of a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds for North America (2nd ed.). I still use it and leaf through it often. Many people I know just have the Sibley guide for the Southeast (a little easier to handle if basically all your birding is in North Carolina), or either the National Geographic or Peterson guides. You may develop strong feelings about a particular bird guide later on, but all of these are quite good, in my opinion. The preface to Sibley has some good tips for birding that are more technical than I’d like to get into here, and just flipping through the book at random can give you a good sense of the variety of what’s out there — the basic categories of birds you can expect to find and where you’ll find them. Acquiring this general sense of birds makes the specifics of new or unknown easier to anticipate, investigate, and remember, I have found!

Q: Where do I find birds?

A: This is the fun part! A great variety of birds can be found almost anywhere, including right outside your house or apartment, but in truth, you may wish to go somewhere with a greater variety of birds sooner or later. I recommend going to eBird.org, making an account, and keeping a bookmark of the eBird page for your county. This page will have a list of “hotspots,” which are places where a substantial diversity of bird species are reported. More on eBird, briefly: If you are interested in keeping track of the birds you see, eBird is a wonderful way to do this. It is an app you can download and use to keep lists of birds as you bird. I like to input birds as I see them, but some people will just go birding and then record their birds from memory after they’re done so as not to have to keep taking out their phones. I don’t trust my memory, so I prefer to mark birds as I go, but it’s up to you. eBird will keep track of what birds you’ve seen (your “life list,” or, in the case of a given year, your “year list”), where you’ve seen them, how many birds you’ve seen in certain states and counties and countries, how many birds you’ve seen year-over-year, etc. And as I said above, data eBirders submit is used to power the Merlin app, which helps people identify birds and anticipate what birds will be in a given area at a certain time of year.

As far as actually detecting birds goes: In the winter, birds will be easier to spot and harder to hear, or at least harder to distinguish by ear. The inverse is true in the spring in summer, when leaves and thickets will be dense with leaves that thwart searching eyes. The most technically difficult thing about birding is aligning your binoculars with a spot of movement you’ve detected with the naked eye. This takes some practice, and all I can say by way of advice is to get out with binoculars and get some reps in—even if the bird is familiar and known, work to get it in focus and keep track of it as it moves about. The most physically demanding part of birding is “warbler neck,” or the discomfort of craning your neck upward to keep track of a bird high in a canopy directly overhead.

In any case, you will find yourself becoming more aware of motion and certain kinds of movement in certain kinds of environments. This will lead you to train your gaze upon certain places rather than others as you gain a sense of where birds tend to be and how they tend to move.

Q: How did you learn all those bird songs?

A: Birding by ear is an especially useful skill for locating birds at a distance or among dense foliage. I recommend that you record unfamiliar birdsongs with your phone for future examination. I know there are apps that sort of function as Shazam for birdsong (I haven’t used them), but there are slightly more analog ways figure out what you’re hearing that I think help you learn bird soudns better. For example — as you listen back, think about what kinds of birds make similar sounds. Think about where you heard the sound coming from. A tree? A meadow? A thicket? A pond? Think about the kinds of birds you’ve seen in those places, and head into Merlin’s “likely birds near me” list able to at least rule out a great number of birds and with a few guesses about whose songs to check out first. As you bird for longer, you will gain a sense of which songs sound “finchy” or “warblery” or “wren-like.”

I also constantly survey the bird sounds around me when I’m outdoors, really locking in the most common bird sounds by simply ID-ing them over and over again. You’ll notice that as you do this, you’ll need to hear less and less of a song or call to make an ID, the same way you can identify your favorite song from the very first chord. My inner monologue on walks these days is mainly just names of birds scrolling past my mind’s eye as I hear them.

Q: How can I find other birders?

A: Birding is one of few activities I’m completely comfortable doing by myself. Sometimes that’s how I prefer to bird. But so much of what I know about birds is what I’ve absorbed from birding with kind and helpful people who know more than I do. During the pandemic, my birding friends were among the only non-roommate friends I saw in person on a regular basis. Moreover, birding was the only way I made new friends during the pandemic, and I am so grateful for them. As a bonus, I find that multiple sets of eyes inevitably turn up more birds than solo trips, simply because it’s hard to keep track of possible birds in every direction all of the time.

Making birding friends, especially as a young person, is best done by making it public that you like to bird. There aren’t a lot of us, but some of your friends/acquaintances may be birding-curious and seize upon your expertise and enthusiasm as an opportunity. Or they’ll know someone else who likes to bird and put you in touch. That has happened to me a lot! Some of my birding friends are people who heard through the grapevine through friends from school that I was into birding.

But others were people I just ran into out birding and started talking to. I find that almost every birder responds well to a simple “Howdy!” and “Seen anything fun?” if you happen to cross paths with one. The product of these run-ins and friends-of-friends becoming birding friends has been a growing community of young birders, embodied in a GroupMe and multiple weekly outings.

Where I live, we have a local Audubon chapter and a series of Facebook groups for birders, so figure out if those kinds of groups are active near where you live.

If all else fails, make your regular friends birding friends, using your powers of persuasion to bring them along for the ride. That’s how I got into this, at least indirectly, thanks to seeds planted by my friends Jon and Tait over the course of a couple years.

These are some birding tips! I’ll probably add to this and update it as I learn more or get up the motivation to edit it for concision and things. Please get in touch if you have questions, and I’ll make sure to add them to this guide if the answer would be generally useful.

North Carolina