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Looking for a New Hobby? Give Birding a Try

So you want to be a birdwatcher? Great! You picked a hobby that can be done almost anywhere outside. You can watch from your yard, a small park, a large forest preserve or even looking out the car windows on a drive!

A bird ID guide and binoculars on a railing.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

You don’t need many supplies either. Just binoculars, and they aren't hard to use. An identification (ID) guide or app, like Merlin Bird ID, can help you name the birds you see.

One thing you need doesn’t cost a single penny, but it might be the hardest to get. How patient are you? Birdwatching takes a lot of patience. Birds have minds of their own. You may need to wait for them to arrive. They might be too far away or moving too quickly to clearly see. And some birds look alike except for small details.

A cedar waxwing eating a mulberry.
A cedar waxwing. (Photo via Shutterstock)

So how can you successfully ID the birds you see? Trying to notice a few different things can help narrow it down.

  • Size: How big is it? Think of a bird you recognize. Maybe a robin or a duck. Is the bird you see bigger or smaller than a robin? How about bigger or smaller than a duck? Comparing a new bird to familiar birds can help you figure out the size.

  • Shape: Is it puffy and round like a dark-eyed junco? Does its neck stretch long like a goose? Notice the beak shape too — long, short, flat or curved? Becoming familiar with different bird family shapes, like owls or hawks, can help too.

  • Color: How many different colors do you notice on the bird? Are the wings a different color than the belly? What special markings can you see? Tail feather stripes? Markings by the eyes, like the mask on a cedar waxwing?

  • Place: Where do you see it? Floating on the water? Taking nibbles from a bird feeder? On electrical wires over a field? Birds hang out in habitats that support their needs for food, shelter and space. Just like you, they prefer to hang out in their favorite places. You won’t find a heron eating from a birdfeeder because they like fish, not seeds. What place could you find a heron instead?

  • Behavior: Watch their wings in flight? Do you see wings flapping quickly or gliding? Is it climbing up or down a tree trunk? Nuthatches climb upside down, so that’s an excellent clue, even if you can’t see its color.

  • Song: If you can’t quite see a bird, you may still be able to ID it by learning its song. Birders call this birding by ear. Birding by ear takes a lot of practice, but watching videos or using apps, like Merlin Bird ID, can help you learn. Sometimes recognizing the song can even help you find the bird because you’ll know what to look for. If you hear a bird call like laser beams shooting “pew, pew, pew” look for the red flash of cardinal feathers.

Birdwatching can be relaxing and rewarding. Finding birds is exciting, but being able to identify them adds an extra layer of accomplishment. You can challenge yourself to find a certain number of species or go to different places and find different birds.

A northern cardinal on a wooden railing.
A northern cardinal. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Want to try it before you buy it? Head out to the Plum Creek Nature Center to borrow binoculars and ID guides. Ask a naturalist to show you how to use the Merlin Bird ID app. Observe all the different birds visiting the bird feeders for a closeup opportunity to practice bird ID.

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