Seven birding basics

Lora J. Finnegan and Jim McCausland

How do you start bird-watching? It's simple: purchase binoculars and a field guide, and you're on your way. But the following advice will help you become a much better birder faster.

1 Use a checklist. Many good birding sites (including most of those listed here) supply visitors with checklists of local birds to help you distinguish one bird from another. You can pull up bird checklists for many National Wildlife Refuges here.

2 Get to know one pocket-size field guide well. Write notes in it and check off birds in the index as you see them—there are more than 900 species in North America, so without a list, you'll never remember what you've seen. Classic field guides: Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2000; $20) and A Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998; $18).

3 Be patient. If you stay just five minutes in a given habitat, you'll see a handful of birds (and most of those will be common ones like crows, pigeons, and mallards). But if you sit quietly for 20 minutes, you'll probably see double that amount, including some of the shy, rare, and unusual birds that make birding fun.

4 Listen for more than bird calls. A noisy "murder" of crows will often lead you to a roosting hawk, owl, or eagle. Rustling leaves might reveal a fox sparrow or spotted towhee scratching for food. Listening for drumming helps you zero in on woodpeckers.

5 Look for more than field marks. Birds are beautiful, but the real fascination lies in discovering how they live. Watch how creepers spiral up tree trunks in search of dinner. Or watch a birdfeeder to see not just seed- and suet-eating birds but the hawks and kestrels that hunt them.

6 Head out with a birder. An enthusiastic mentor can help you sort out difficult groups like gulls or sparrows faster than a book ever could.

7 Join a birding organization. The National Audubon Society (www.audubon.org) is extremely helpful at the local chapter level. The American Birding Association (www.americanbirding.org) is where you'll end up if you become very serious about this pastime.