How to Bird

Advice for good birding!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Be a Better Birder online tutorials are full of expert tips and interactive quizzes. Within a few hours you'll gain an insider's understanding of the key skills that birders use to make quick IDs in the field.

Father and son during the Christmas Bird Count birding in Ramble, Central Park, NYC, December 14th 2014. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Birding Pro Trips

Courtesy of Black Hills Audubon

  • There are two good times to study birds. One is at home before the trip, reading the books and working out identification schemes, so you’ll know what to look for. The second time is in the field, looking at the bird while someone else looks at the book and tells you what to look for. When in the field, remember the motto: Look at the bird, not at the book!
  • Walk and talk softly. Walk heel-to-toe, crushing as little as possible. Hold your arms out away from your sides to avoid swishing noisily against your coat. Bird walks are good times for camaraderie – but not for socializing. (This is more important when watching and trying to listen to small forest birds than when watching large water birds.)
  • Stop a lot. Wait. Watch and listen. Let the birds come to you or pish them out. Remember the motto: Don’t just do something – sit there!
  • Don’t suddenly loom into a new space. When approaching a point where you’ll be exposed in a new space, stop, then move into it slowly, watching carefully before you’re actually in it.
  • Know where your binoculars are focused. When you’re watching things far away, keep binoculars focused for that distance. Keep them focused at the right distance for the birds you’re likely to be seeing. Or keep them focused for close up – and know which way to turn the knob to look further away.
  • Look at a place first with your eye, then raise the binoculars into your line of sight. Practice this so you’re not trying to search for the right spot through the binoculars.
  • Pick out a landmark by the bird before you look through your binoculars. For example, think, “Right side of tree, branch rising at 30-degree angle, yellow leaves.”
  • If you can’t find a rapidly moving bird in your binoculars, drop your binoculars a little and look again. The bird probably moved while you were trying to sight it. It’s rarely successful to try to find it through the binoculars.
  • When watching small birds or skittish ones, keep your binoculars high, near your eyes, so you won’t have to make sudden big movements that may scare the birds.
  • If you’re fooled momentarily by a leaf bird, rock bird, clump bird, stick or stump bird, don’t spend more time looking at it.
  • A swinging branch is more likely to be a spot that a bird has just left than a spot where one has just landed.
  • Listen. Use your ears to locate birds. Directional hearing is important in getting your eyes in the general location of the bird.

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