Four Reasons to Check Out the Birds While You Run

From city pavement to country fields, run-birding is picking up speed. We asked the pros why they do it and how to do it best.

Ever feel like there’s too many birds and not enough time? Are you torn between the thrill of the chase and the everyday slog of going to the gym? Well, perhaps it’s time to start pulling double duty by combining the two sports. Some experienced birders have started doing just that, and they’re calling it run-birding. 

According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Labor report, nearly 9 percent of Americans ages 15 and older run to stay in shape. U.S.-based birders, meanwhile, number at around 45 million

If you engage in both of these activities, or aspire to, you might consider combining a fitness plan with your next foray into the field. Running is inexpensive and requires minimal gear, as does birding. What’s more, they allow you to take a reprieve in nature while also honing your senses and awareness of the world. These four run-birders show you how.

Run to enjoy the real-life playlist.

Katie Barnes of Daphne, Alabama, skips the headphones and uses birdsong to motivate her distance runs. “Birding by ear is pure joy,” the Birmingham Audubon biologist says. “I use the birds to cheer me on.” She leaves her binoculars behind, but carries her smartphone to log species seen or heard on eBird.

She cautions that run-birding might result in mistaken identity—and some minor spills. “A bird that almost made me trip was a Hooded Warbler chipping in the understory,” Barnes says. “I thought it was a Louisiana Waterthrush.” She chalks her misidentification up to the sound of feet striking pavement and the wind rishing in her ears. To confirm her conclusions in spite of the background noise, she sometimes uses the clips in the Sibley eGuide app for a quick, discreet reference. When doing so, she listens at low volume and only plays the call once to avoid triggering her quarry.

Run to check on your (avian) neighbors.

For some birders, treading the same route on a regular basis brings confidence in IDs. Author and artist Julie Zickefoose of southern Ohio rises at dawn each day to catch the sunrise and run across her 80-acre rural property. After seven years of doing so, she’s become familiar with the calls of the birds that breed, fly through, and fuel up on her land. She multitasks further by recording the species she encounters in a notebook and monitoring 25 nest boxes along her route, most of which are inhabited by Eastern Bluebirds in spring and early summer and Downy Woodpeckers in the winter. It’s community science, exercise, and “morning meditation,” Zickefoose says.

Zickefoose’s runs also help her learn about the vulnerability of local native landscapes and the birds they support. “Wildflower patches have been taken over by Asian grasses, just to name one change,” she says. She’s concerned about what invasive plants may portend for future bird populations, so she continues to track the fluxes of species on her land.

All this experience has allowed Zickefoose to master run-birding gear, too. “I use tiny Swarovski CL binoculars snubbed up real short in winter. They don't bounce with all the heavier clothing I wear. In summer I let the strap out and wear them bandolier style under my left arm, tight up against my ribs,” she says. In addition to the small notebook she carries, she stows her iPhone away in a waist pack. “I wear it under my running fleece to keep my phone right up against my warm belly,” Zickefoose says. “Otherwise the battery dies right away.”

Run to travel between birding hotspots.

Ornithologist and University of Washington grad student Dave Slager covers a wider area when he runs around Seattle. For him, the goal is to get from one birding patch to the next. “Usually a run doesn't perfectly coincide with a hotspot,” Slager says. So, he adjusts his route according to where the birds are at any given moment. “I might run to the lake more often during the winter when there are waterfowl there,” he says. Usually, Slager likes to take in the run-birding experience without submitting data, but on occasion he will draw up an eBird checklist, using a personal location rather than a designated hotspot to map his sightings.

Like Barnes and Zickefoose, Slager birds by ear but sometimes carries lightweight binoculars in hand or in a lightweight backpack. “I actually stop while I’m birding,” he says. “The running body is not a good optical platform for seeing birds.” The time spent birding often doubles as his cool-down.

Run to spread a conservation message.

And what about promoting a greater cause through running? Urban farmer and author Annie Novak of Brooklyn, New York, footed 100 miles and two marathons this fall to draw attention to bird migration. Using Instagram Stories and the app Runkeeper, she shared visual highlights from each 10-mile segment of her campaign.

“I’m interested in the physical effort birds make while traveling these incredible distances,” Novak says. “I connect the running I love with the landscapes that support migratory birds to engage people to explore green spaces around them.” To identify species on the go, Novak relied on calls, shape, behavior, and habitat. Learning these clues allowed her to travel light and mostly leave her binoculars at home.

Think advocacy-minded run-birding is for you? Check with your local Audubon chapter or center to see if they’re hosting events like the recent Run for the Birds 10K, organized by Audubon Martin County in Okeechobee, Florida. If you’re feeling more ambitious, take inspiration from Katharine and David Lowrie. The couple spent 2012 to 2013 running the length of South America to raise money for avian conservation, and have now released a book on their successful trek. Or just log sightings from your shorter, regular route on eBird. Your community science data can help shape laws and practices that protect the habitats wildlife (and runners) depend on.