How to Start Birding


This summer, as part of The New York Times birding project, The Times will be sharing a series of prompts to help readers learn how to get started birding. Begin with something foundational: Learn to identify a few of the birds most commonly seen near where you live.

For beginner tips, The Times spoke with Alli Smith, the project coordinator for Merlin — a bird-identification app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — about learning to bird, and the joy of it.

How do I find birds to observe?

Birds are everywhere. Even in the middle of the city, you can find house sparrows, starlings, pigeons, peregrine falcons. And they can be in all kinds of places that you might not expect: on the ground, hiding in grass, sitting on the ledges of buildings. If you stop and observe for a few minutes, you’re very likely to find a bird no matter where you are.

How do I learn to identify birds?

We’re obviously a little bit biased here, so I’m going to recommend the Merlin Bird ID app. It walks you through a series of five questions that you should be asking yourself when you’re looking at a bird.

Merlin will ask you where you saw the bird specifically and the time of year. A lot of places see different birds depending on the season.

Then, observing the bird for a while can really help. Is it tiny, like a house sparrow? Is it really big, like a goose? And the colors of the bird can help as well. Is it bright and yellow and colorful? Is it solid black?

And then the behavior: What is it doing? Is it visiting a bird feeder? There’s a very small list, relatively, of birds that are likely to visit a bird feeder compared with birds that are elsewhere in the environment. Is it spending a lot of time perched in a tree? Is it walking around on the ground? Is it in the water swimming?

With all of these things put together, Merlin can give you a list of likely birds. But even if you’re not using Merlin, those are the types of things that you should be looking for: the size, color, behavior, location and date.

What equipment do I need to start birding?

Binoculars, field guides or cameras — or travel — might help you find more birds or get closer looks at them. But you definitely don’t need any of those.

What should I keep in mind while birding in the summer?

Birds are generally quietest during the hottest part of the day, so you’ll probably see a lot more if you’re going birding from sunrise, like 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. or so. Once it starts to get hot, birds really start to quiet down. They hide more in the shade. But if you can only get out during the middle of the day, try places that tend to attract birds, like near water. And then evenings can be really nice, too. Two or three hours before sunset, birds start to get more active.

What do you enjoy about birding?

I am just so deeply delighted that I get to share my neighborhood, my world, with these tiny, feathered balls of energy that are bouncing around and singing beautiful songs and doing all these really wacky and wonderful behaviors, like weaving nests out of grass and showing off their shiny feathers. Each bird is its own little treasure. Even the common birds around here, like the grackles and house sparrows — they’re so fun to watch. They’re really goofy.

It’s also special when you get to see a more rare bird. I think they’re so inspiring, these tiny birds that are able to fly from the southern tip of South America all the way up to Canada, Alaska, the Arctic to breed. And they do that twice a year. That’s absolutely incredible. They’re tiny and yet so determined and powerful.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



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