Birdwatching by Lois W. Stern

Man looking through binoculars in a bird watching hideout.

Birdwatching: What a fun, rewarding activity to share with your family and friends! It requires little in the way of advance preparation, and can be done so simply and spontaneously – right in the comfort of your own backyard. We are fortunate to have so many different birds here in North America. With a little patience and a few observational pointers, you will be able to identify a number of them right away.

Here are three simple steps to begin:

Gather Your Supplies

A pair of binoculars and a bird reference guide are two essentials for beginners. Binoculars will help you see more details of your bird visitors, even if they are some distance away. A reference guide will provide clues to identification as well as interesting information about your bird.

Get Comfortable

Sit on your porch swing or garden bench. Sprawl out on a chaise lounge or beach blanket. Any way that helps you feel relaxed and comfortable.

Encourage Birds to Come Closer

Keep the surroundings quiet and serene. Birds are frightened by sudden motions or loud noises. That is one reason why it is important to get comfortable before you begin. You can read while you wait and watch, but be sure to turn the pages slowly. Try not to talk, but if it’s absolutely necessary, whisper.

Attracting Birds to Your Backyard:

Here are two things you should provide to attract more birds to your backyard: food and water.

Birds love water, especially water in motion! So birdbaths are one way to attract birds to your backyard. Birdbaths are available in many different styles. If you can manage to mount a garden hose above your birdbath so that it drips ever so slowly, birds will flock to their new jacuzzi, as they simply adore the movement of water. You can also find water drippers and misters to mount to your birdbath.

Birds love a ready food supply. Many types of birdfeeders are available. Be sure to research the proper types of food and feeders for your birds. But beginners can set up a temporary feeding station easily by placing sunflower seeds on a piece of non-treated wood or the flat side of a log. Mount your feeder on a window sill or deck railing. These seeds will attract a variety of different birds to your yard.

Identifying Birds:

What is the first thing you notice when looking at a bird? You probably answer “its color.” But did you know that the color of the bird’s feathers can be an inconsistent identity markers? Here’s why.

Male and female of the same species are often colored very differently. (Males are generally more colorful than their female counterparts.) One good example is the difference in coloring between the male and female Cardinal. Young birds are often colored differently from their parents. Birds of the same species and sex can be colored differently according to the season, as are the male American Goldfinch.

So although a bird’s color is critical, there are other bird characteristics which remain constant markers for male, female and juvenile.

Describing and Identifying Birds:

When you spot a new bird, always start by describing it with words which compare it with birds you already recognize.*


Bird lengths quoted in field guide books are normally measurements taken from bill tip to tail tip, with the bird in a stretched out position. Your bird will not be stretched out in a tray, so it is likely to appear somewhat smaller than the dimensions quoted in bird books.* Example: “It’s a bit larger than a House Sparrow , but a little smaller than a Robin.”

Overall Body Shape

Is it plump or slender? * Example: “It’s a bit plumper than a Catbird, but more slender than a Starling.”

Bill Shape

Bill shapes also come in many varieties. Example: * “Its bill is small and fine like a Warbler.”Small and fine (Warbler) Short and stout (Sparrows) Dagger shaped (Tern, Heron) Hook tipped (Falcon, Osprey)

Field Marks

Unlike color, markings on the bird’s breast do not vary, so field marks are a most helpful and reliable aid to bird identification. Note whether the bird’s breast is spotted, streaked or plain. Spotted like a Wood Thrush Streaked like a Song Sparrow Plain like a Herring Gull.

Wing Bars

Bars on the bird’s wings can be single or double; bold, faint or nonexistent. Within one broad family of birds, such as Warblers, Vireos and Flycatchers, the presence or absence of wing bars can be a key to differentiation. Note the differences in the wing bars of the Red-Eyed Vireo pictured on the left and the Yellow Throated Vireo on the right.

There are other details to help with identification, such as eye rings, bill spots and eye stripes, but let’s save those details until you become a more experienced birder. For more help identifying your backyard birds, check out our free online bird guide, our selection of field guides and our electronic hand held bird identiflyer.

Have fun celebrating your festival of backyard birds!

— Written by Lois W. Stern

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  • Nancy Thompson November 12, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Good article. I am currently disabled and would like to start birdwatching and do not know where to start. I gone through the internet and it was totally confusing for me with too many options and not enough easy to understand information. I have been feeding the birds now for 5 years and have numerous types of birds and families that come back every year; it would be great to know what these birds are and to document what I am seeing. Your article above gave me some great easy to understand information. Would you please be able to direct me to the “right” course? I just love the Duncraft site and have purchased many items through the year, thus my reason for looking at their site for assistance. Thanks for any help you may be able to give. Nancy

  • Roxanne-Duncraft November 14, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Hi Nancy,
    There are quite a lot of good bird field guides out there. My favorite has always been National Geographic’s Guide to North American Birds, but there are also many other good ones. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon:
    I’ve made a couple of common bird charts on one of our affiliate websites that may help you: