Bird-watching is a lifetime hobby that can help your spirit soar.
Credit: Shelly Strazis

Shila Wilson, 55, always felt she had a special appreciation for wildlife, but it wasn’t until she saw her first great blue heron near her hometown of Marietta, Ohio, that her passion for bird-watching was ignited. “I was taking a morning walk along the Ohio River when I noticed this tall, prehistoric-looking bird wading along the bank only a few feet away. Suddenly the bird took off, its enormous wings slowly propelling it across the river. It was the most stunning bird I had ever seen, and I was overwhelmed by the desire to know what it was.”

She called a friend who was an avid bird-watcher, and together they consulted a field guide to solve the mystery. “My tall, blue-gray bird was an adult great blue heron. This one experience got me tuned into birds, and I began noticing them everywhere I went,” she says.

For Wilson, that heron was her “spark bird”―the one that sparked her interest in bird-watching. Wilson’s experience is not unusual. Bird-watching is booming in North America. According to recent estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 50 million North American bird-watchers. There are more than 200 birding festivals held each year in the country, and nearly 25 states now have driving routes―called birding trails―specifically dedicated to the pastime.

People who are not bird-watchers are often curious about why this activity is so popular. The late Roger Tory Peterson, whose field guides made bird identification easier, believed it was because birds are “the most vivid expression of life.” After all, they demonstrate behaviors and characteristics we humans find admirable: beautiful plumages; elaborate, musical singing; courtship of mates; dedicated raising of offspring; defenders of home territory; and, perhaps most wondrous of all, flight―something humans have only mastered in the past 100 years.

According to Scott Weidensaul, ornithologist and author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, the appeal of bird-watching is easy to understand. “The great thing about bird-watching is its simplicity―all you need are a good pair of binoculars and a willingness to slow down and drink in your surroundings,” Weidensaul says. “You will find that there are beautiful, rare, and fascinating birds absolutely everywhere, from urban parks and your backyard to wherever you happen to be going on vacation.”

It’s this phenomenon that avid bird-watcher Christine Williamson, conservation chair of the Chicago Ornithological Society, calls her “bird scanner.” “I walk out the door in the morning, and my ears and eyes are automatically scanning,” Williamson says. “What I hear and see tells me what migrated in overnight, which breeding birds are still on territory and singing. In the winter, the call of a single chickadee reminds me that life is still present and that spring will come.”  

Birds of a Feather

The best times of day to watch birds are early in the morning and late in the day, when they are most active. Most birders get out early―often before dawn―to take advantage of the height of activity and to be in good birding habitat when the sun rises. Carrying binoculars and a field guide, you can watch and listen for birds. When one is seen, it’s observed carefully using binoculars so that unique plumage and other features can be noted. Then the birder looks to the field guide for a matching image and description. Many watchers keep notes of their sightings―a journal of their birding experiences―as well as a checklist of species seen.

To learn about bird-watching, it’s easiest to do it with others. Join a local club or nature center bird walk; the social aspect is as enjoyable as seeing the birds. When you are with other birders, don’t be afraid to identify yourself as a beginner. Bird-watchers are always eager to share their enthusiasm and willing to answer questions.

Clubs offer lectures and identification advice that help hone your skills and give you new ideas for places to go birding or new equipment to try. Most clubs offer field trips year-round, locally and farther afield. Visiting a birding festival will put you in contact with dozens or even hundreds of other bird-watchers with whom you can share stories and swap information on sightings, experiences, places, and equipment. These events also are a good opportunity to test and purchase products to enhance your enjoyment of the hobby. And the field trips, seminars, and programs offered by festivals are a great way to expand your birding knowledge and experience.

On the recommendation of her friend, Wilson purchased binoculars and a field guide―the two must-have tools for any beginner. Starting out is really that simple. 


Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (800-843-2473) runs a variety of conservational science projects, monitors seasonal bird populations, and is a clearinghouse of information for beginners.

American Birding Association (800-850-2473) is North America’s leading organization for active bird-watchers, with more than 20,000 members. Their Web site lists the latest birding field trips, trails, and festivals around the country.

The Christophers, Ltd. (800-422-7876) Web site provides expert advice on purchasing binoculars, spotting scopes, and other birding gear. They also offer deals on closeout and demo items.