A Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching

Birds are easier to spot now that there are fewer cars and people.

Li Charmaine Anne
Live Your Life On Purpose
5 min readApr 14, 2020


Staying in to wait out the pandemic? You may have noticed that with fewer people and fewer cars, the streets are quieter and the birds are making noise!

As social distancing and self-isolation continue, most of us are staying home. But if you are one of the lucky ones with some trees in the backyard, you may be able to go on a small birdwatching adventure.

First Things First: Stay Safe and Be Considerate

This goes without saying, but please adhere to local social distancing rules and as a good rule of thumb, stay a safe distance (6 feet or 2 meters according to the CDC) from other humans.

If you have recently traveled, are recovering from illness, or are otherwise strictly required to stay home, please do. If you go to the park and it’s full of people, please go home and birdwatch another time. Have questions? Contact your local health authority.

Stay with your immediate household. Remember: you’re not just protecting yourself; you’re protecting other people, and you may still be able to spread the virus even if you have no symptoms.

Go birdwatching at sunrise.

Birds are more vocal and active in the mornings and there will be fewer people outside. Win-win!

Without further ado, here’s my promised guide on birding. This was written by a lifelong amateur ornithologist and part-time wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, with love :)

European robin singing with open mouth on branch.
The European Robin belongs to a completely different family than the American Robin. (Photo by Jan Meeus on Unsplash)

Why Go Birding?

Birdwatching (or birding, as we birders call it) is a truly underrated sport. It’s relaxing, rewarding, and can take you to epic places. It also teaches humans to be mindful and fully aware of their surroundings, to live in the moment. And if you do it with your housemates, it can be a social experience with a shared goal.

Birdwatching is an easy, low-barrier way to restore your innate connection to nature. Humans were hunter-gatherers for most of our evolutionary history, and you’ll quickly feel a connection to your primal roots when you go hunting and gathering for bird sightings.

Pair of binoculars on an open birding guidebook with pictures of owls.
Photo by Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash

Tools You’ll Need

You really don’t need anything fancy for birdwatching other than your senses and some back-pocket knowledge, but a few things could help.


Binoculars, however, can be helpful. You can get a cheap pair on Amazon that will make a big difference, but if you’d rather not ship potential contaminants to your house, don’t worry. Just rely on your eyes and/or ears.

Bird Habitat

Finding a bird habitat may be easier than you think. Birds are everywhere, even in urban centers. Think crows, seagulls, and pigeons are boring? Think again!

There are probably more species of gulls in your area than you think, and there are actually three distinct species of crows (Northwestern, American, and Fish) in North America. Pigeons are common worldwide, but even they come in a smorgasbord of distinct morphs.

Comfortable Clothing

Dress for the weather and environment. Comfortable shoes and weather-appropriate outerwear will give you a more enjoyable experience. Wear sunglasses if you will be squinting into the sky, and hats are a good idea if you’ll be ducking through a forest. You don’t want to pull bugs out of your hair!

Food and Water

Birdwatching can be more physical than you think. Bring some snacks and water, but please do not feed wild animals or tempt them to eat from your hand. In popular hiking spots where I’ve seen this happen, the birds have become very aggressive.

Guidebook or App

As a child ornithologist, I carried around my Sibley Guide to Birds. Nowadays, I carry the Merlin app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You simply enter in basic, observable information (habitat, color, behavior, etc.) along with your region, and the app will bounce back possible matching species for you.

Species pages also have libraries of songs and calls, sorted into the region, so you can identify birds by ear.

Northern Cardinal and Black-Capped Chickadee on a tree stump on a snowy day.
The Northern Cardinal (left) and Black-Capped Chickadee (right) are two of the most common birds in North America. (Photo by Erin Wilson on Unsplash)

How to Find Birds

Again, birds are everywhere! But you might need to look in places you don’t normally look, such as in bushes, high up in forest canopies, and along hydro poles. (Please stay safe while looking at birds; we don’t want more people in the ER than necessary!)

A good skill to develop is birding by ear. Go online and find a birdsong directory and see if you can find the species responsible for a song or call you often hear in your neighborhood. If you’re in North America, look up the following:

  • Northern Cardinal
  • Blue Jay (West Coasters: look up the Steller’s Jay instead)
  • House Sparrow
  • European Starling
  • American Robin
  • House Finch
  • American Goldfinch
  • Black-Capped Chickadee
  • Mourning Dove

Sometimes, playing back recorded bird songs (like on the Merlin app) will attract birds! But do this sparingly, as bird songs are often used to defend territories and hearing a rogue bird song may stress birds out.

Baby nestling birds in nest.
Photo by Marty Southwell on Unsplash

How to Help an Injured Bird (If You Find One)

I wanted to quickly mention this because it’s baby bird season in many places.

If you find an “abandoned” baby bird, please do not immediately assume it needs your help. Instead, read this. If you must, pick up the baby bird and return it to its nest. No, the scent of your hands on a baby bird will not cause its parent to abandon it, though it doesn’t hurt to wear gloves to protect yourself and the baby.

If you find a genuinely distressed or injured bird, first things first, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center or wildlife control department. Listen to their instructions.

If you have successfully contained a bird in trouble, do your best not to talk to, touch, or otherwise handle a wild bird. This can create life-threatening stress.

Enjoy Nature!

Now that you have the basics down, go outside and enjoy some nature! And if you’re under a strict lockdown, no worries. Study birdsongs and bird behavior native to your region, and when the pandemic ends, you’ll be an ornithological expert in no time!



Li Charmaine Anne
Live Your Life On Purpose

(She/They) Author on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver, Canada). At work on first novel. Get links to read my stuff for free: https://bit.ly/2MleRqJ