Not a bucket hat in sight among this sartorial bunch of urban birders. (Okay fine, just one.) Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #49: How to Dress for Birding

Your normcore doesn’t impress me, and it sure doesn't impress the birds either.

I’m not a gearhead. I’m too cheap to care about buying the latest stuff (I still listen to my iPod classic). I don’t really understand what kind of engine my car has. I still wear whatever clothes I had in college that still fit and don’t have visible rips and stains. It’s just who I am.

Thankfully, birding is a perfect hobby for the gear-averse. Yes, some thinking needs to go into which pair of binoculars you buy, but once you have a pair that gels, you won’t need a new one for a long time. I’ve had my binoculars for almost 10 years now, and they still work great. The same goes for your spotting scope and camera—if you decide to spring for them.

In general, casual birding doesn’t require a lot of gear, but that doesn’t mean companies aren’t constantly coming up with new products and insisting that birders need them. Case in point: birding clothes.

I agree that it’s good to think ahead before you go outside, and be prepared for sun and bugs and heat and whatever. But unless you’re expecting some serious weather or, of course, you have medical needs, you really don’t need to own or wear any special clothing to go birding.

Yet, for whatever reason, a lot of birders won’t leave the house unless they’re dressed like they’re going on an African safari. Khaki everything. A ton of pockets. A million zippers. All that’s missing is a pith helmet and a rifle. Let’s discuss some more of the classic pieces found in many birders’ closets.

Wide-Brimmed Hats (a.k.a., safari, outdoor, or bucket hats). I see so many birders wearing these that I wonder if I missed a free giveaway somewhere. I think I understand why people have them (they’re good for sun protection?) but I can’t help thinking that they all look like Gilligan or a late-90s alt-rocker. Even the president of the National Audubon Society thinks birders have a floppy-hat problem.

Multi-Pocketed Khaki Vests. What are people putting in all those pockets anyway? Birdseed? Canisters of undeveloped film from the 1990s? Old ticket stubs from an Earth, Wind & Fire concert? No one needs that many pockets. These days you can fit entire field guides on your smartphone, and the rest can go in a backpack. Leave the vest at home.

Pants That Zip Away at the Knee. I guess people have a hard time figuring out if they should wear pants or shorts when they leave the house. Personally, I make the decision using that time-honored method of “checking the temperature.” I support the wearing of zip-off pants only if you wear them with one leg on and one leg zipped off. Also, rip-off warmup sweats are cool—if you’re planning to shoot layups while ID-ing that vireo.

Shirts With Those Vents in the Back. I see a lot of people wearing these long-sleeved shirts with big slits in the back. They’re to let airflow in, I guess. Are people’s backs getting super-sweaty? Look, if that’s a problem you’re looking to solve, go for it, but I think shirts work just fine without showing random, sometimes hairy bits of skin.

Okay, so those are a bunch of things you shouldn’t wear. What should you wear to go birding? How about . . . clothes. Just, regular clothes.

It’s on you, my bird-curious friend, to change the tide of public birding perception. You don’t need to wear zip-off pants: You can just wear pants, or shorts. You don’t need to wear a bucket hat with gills and special mosquito repellent fibers: You can just wear a hat. You don’t need to wear a vest with a million pockets: You can just wear, like, literally anything else.

I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m just saying that it’s okay not to buy into not-so-subliminal messages from the gear industry that tell you that you need to buy certain things to be a better birder. If it’s going to be hot out, wear shorts and bring lots of water and sunscreen. If you’re going to get muddy, wear boots. It really doesn’t need to get any more detailed than that.

Coincidentally, Audubon has put together a pretty darn good guide to dressing like a birder without going full-on psychopath. Look at all the things! No khaki! So pleasant looking!

I’m here to tell you that birding can be cool. And coolness, as everyone knows, comes from not caring what anyone thinks. We don’t need to dress like we’re headed up Mt. Everest if we’re just taking half the day to bird in the park. We don’t need some company to tell us how many pockets we need, or tell us that we can’t trust ourselves to decide whether to wear pants or shorts. Be cool. Wear whatever you want. We can change birding . . . one bucket hat at a time.

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