How to Begin Birding

A small bird on a branch.

Birding is an odd hobby. We’ve been doing it for millions of years (Haast’s eagles preyed on the first people to arrive in New Zealand so being able to spot them was an important skill) and we all have done it in some form during our lives. Then there are those of us who invests thousands of dollars on binoculars and cameras and make pilgrimages to tiny villages to see a bird that may not even show up! But you don’t need to spend any money or even travel very far if you want to start birdwatching, you just need patience and some knowledge. While there are a number of apps for birding on the go, the tried and true guides for birding have always been books.

Sibley Birds West

Field Guides

Generally, birds are in the same places over time. You’ll always find gulls on the coast (or in a parking lot), pigeons on cliffs (or tall buildings) dodging peregrines while ducks hang out at ponds (manmade or otherwise). Many bird species have decreased in populations over the decades but the places they go very much remain the same. Used books work just as well as new ones, while some have limited print runs due to how specific they are. Example: the Sibley guide for the western half of North America would be common to find, then the American Birding Association’s guide to California would be less popular, while Birding in the Bay Area would only have a few copies available. The bigger the region, the more birds will be included, but that also means a heavier book with lots of pictures or a smaller book with no pictures. Some books are great for studying at home while others you’ll keep in your bag while you’re on a hike, so it’s good to have a number of books for different occasions and areas.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

This is a great book for beginners taking a short trip or to study at home. As a larger book it includes pictures of how books look differently across the seasons and life stages, which can be radically different. Color-coded maps show where birds are at different times of the year and there’s plenty of information on behavior, which is a great clue in identifying a new find. This guide contains every species officially recorded in North America, from the farthest reaches of Alaska to the forests of Cuba, numbering over 900! It even includes information on extinct and feral populations for completion’s sake.

Sibley's Birding Basics

Sibley’s Birding Basics

David Sibley is the modern-day John James Audubon and his guides are top-notch. His Birding Basics discusses how to bird. As an artist, he includes how to sketch an unknown species and the details to include to look up later. It also includes practical tips, such as dealing with weather, different types of terrain and even what gear you should invest in.

The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

This volume, used in ornithology classes as a textbook, covers the many different facets of what makes a bird, well, a bird. Breeding behaviors, flight, singing, navigating and their level of intelligence unseen in most animals. You’ll learn about the incredibly diverse types of birds, what exactly defines a species and what “facts” about birds are entirely untrue. Example: common knowledge states that birds are famously monogamous but that is the exception, not the rule. Genetic testing on siblings show great genetic diversity, the father that tends to the nest doesn’t necessarily make the cut to be a biological father. A surprising number of mated are of gay or lesbian couples who may share no DNA with their chicks.

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird

Next time you’re at the park take a close look. How much would you imagine someone would pay for a pigeon that looks like that? You probably wouldn’t have guessed $328,000, but one buyer spent just that to buy a racing pigeon. Columba livia hail from the Middle East, Mediterranean and Indian subcontinent but have flourished across the world as an introduced species, brought along by man as messengers, meals and companions. You’ll learn about our long history with this species, from hunting the passenger pigeon to extinction to Cher Ami, the American homing pigeon who earned the Croix de guerre for saving 194 allied soldiers by delivering a message despite receiving serious injuries.

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