Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bird Watcher—or Birder?

During my first few years of observing birds, I thought of myself as a birdwatcher. “Birder” seemed to me somehow too exalted for what I did. After a while, though, I realized that the distinction was much like that between “jogger” and “runner.” From the age of 30, I was an avid jogger. I jogged four or five times a week, I ran an occasional race (for fun only), and even wrote books and articles on the topic. Still, I always hesitated to think of myself as a “real” runner. Somehow it seemed that title should belong only to people who ran marathons, or were so fast they could qualify for the Olympic Trials.


Then, one day a marathoner friend said, “You don't think you're a real runner. But don't you run?”

“Well, yes,” I said. “But only very slowly.”

“Doesn't matter,” he said. “If you run on a regular basis, you are a runner.” Yes! I thought. I am! And I am also a jogger.

I believe the same thing is true about birdwatching and birding. Most people think of birders as fanatics with expensive binoculars who can identify a distant bird at a glance . Many birders in fact do fit that description. But they share an important activity with me and millions of other people: watching birds.


It doesn't really matter what you call yourself. If you enjoy watching birds, you will probably enjoy it even more if you develop your birdwatching skills. Here’s how to get started.

  1. Start close to home. If you have a yard or live near a park, start spending regular time observing the birds you see. You can even start your observations by simply looking out the window. Start to get an idea of the basics of the most common birds. What color, shape, and size are they? Do they walk, or do they hop? Do they perch on tree branches, or cling to the tree trunk? What are their beaks like—long, short, curved? What color? Do you see one doing something unusual, such as searching for and flying off with pieces of twigs, or feathers? The number of details can seem overwhelming, but if you look at the same birds often enough, the details will soon make sense and attach themselves to individual birds in your mind. Mr. Pyrrhuloxia 11-8-2007 9-27-51 PM 491x436 CU curve-billed thrasher 11-12-2012 12-22-40 PM 497x855 

  2. Get a bird book. There are hundreds of books that can help you learn more about birds. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I bought several books on hummingbirds more or less at random, and found the pictures inside helped me gradually learn identifications. I will list some specific books in a later post, but any guide to the birds of your area should help you get started.

  3. Get a pair of binoculars. These don't have to be expensive. I started with a pair of opera glasses that I had used at the opera in New York. They were all I needed for my first couple of years of (mostly backyard) birding. In a future post I'll tell you what to look for when you're ready to graduate to a better pair of binocs.

  4. Have fun!

Next: Your First Bird Walk


  1. Anonymous4:10 AM

    I am enjoying all of the birds in a mulberry tree that is outside my second floor window. Chickadees, goldfinches, orioles, robins.

    1. Thanks for sharing your wonderful view!

  2. One of your best posts. Very informative and the runner analogy really fits!

    1. Thank you for reading it and responding thoughtfully. You have made my day. :-)