I’m biased, but in my opinion, birding is the Greatest Pursuit Available to a Citizen of the Modern World. It’s basically a lifelong scavenger hunt played across the entire earth. It’s equal parts science and poetry, hoots of triumph and quiet reflection, adventures to far-flung corners of the world and discoveries in your own back yard.
Your life is going to be better with birds in it. If you’ve always loved birds but never known how to actually make the leap, here’s how to begin.
1. Get Excited — and Read Up
So, there’s no rush. While aching knees or backs will eventually force your peers to hang up their skis or mountain bikes, birders can bird for as long as they can walk, roll, or look out a window (I’m genuinely excited to impress my peers at whatever nursing home I eventually get put into). Take a moment to learn about what you’re getting into.
Start by getting your hands on a field guide. Any book will do as long as it has pictures of each bird and maps of their range. Keep this book in a place where you’ll be able to leisurely flip through it for a couple minutes each day—the bathroom works as well as your nightstand. What are the different kinds of birds? Where do they live, and in what seasons? Don’t worry at this point about how to identify anything, just focus on figuring out what’s out there.
To supplement your field guide examination, learn some things about avian biology and the sport of birding. Watch all of the BBC’s Life of Birds series, hosted by your new hero David Attenborough. Learn about why birds are birds, and how they’ve evolved into such incredible creatures. Read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik (unsurprisingly, the book’s better than the movie), and learn about the extreme end of this hobby—not as something to emulate (yet) but as a point of reference. Excited yet? Good, let’s go to step two.
2. Gear Up
A great thing about birding is how little equipment you need to actually do it. To get started, you really just need something to hold to the eye to make those far-away little birdies a bit bigger. In the beginning, you don’t need to worry about what kind of binoculars you’re using. All you’ve got is a pair of hulking, 14-pound black plastic behemoths from your mom’s house? Use them. Little opera glasses that you hold to your face with a stick? They’ll work. One of those extending telescopes that fit in your pocket? Get ready to run through the woods like some sort of bird-watching pirate. If they make far away things seem a little less far away, use them for now.
And that’s it! Some form of binoculars and that field guide you bought earlier are plenty to get started. As you get better, you may want to invest in a nice camera or a spotting scope (for the really far-off birds), but they’re by no means required.
3. Get Out There
The time has come to actually get outside. The first experience is important; if you’re overwhelmed, or you don’t quite “get” what you’re supposed to be doing, you may not return for a second chance. So start with a plan.
Here’s what I recommend: pick a bird and go find it. Use that field guide you bought and pick a bird you’ve never seen before—one that you’re reasonably sure lives nearby at that time of year—and go find it. There are a lots of resources you can use to determine what birds have been seen nearby, like the “explore data” section of eBird or postings on your local birding listserv. Then just go out into the actual world and start looking until you find it.
Believe me, the accomplishment you’ll feel when your chosen bird is all of a sudden flapping or paddling or sitting in front of you, no longer a flat image in the book but a living creature—that feeling is what this is all about. You’ll recapture it with every new species you find.
And that’s it, you’re a birder! There are a lot of ways to proceed from here—finding buddies to bird with; chasing your first rarity; taking your first trip out of state—but all those will come naturally once you’ve gotten started.
Congratulations on your new hobby—I’ll see you in the field.