Identifying birds and birdwatching has become very popular over the last decade. Universities offer online courses for those interested in identifying birds, bird anatomy, and bird behaviors. Cornell School of Ornithology is one such program.
Our family learned bird identification from a paternal grandmother. So, now we are avid and amateur birders.
What Is So Special About Birds?
We live outside the city and always have, so birds have always been plentiful in our yard. We participated in a nest box monitoring program through a local bird store for several years. We learned so much about bird behavior, and it was an opportunity for our children to see the bird life cycle “in action.”
Recently, we’ve taken up the hobby of photographing birds; however, I am very amateur at it. However, we have captured some great moments on “film.”
We’ve photographed a male bird feeding his mate. Our favorite bird photos are of a male bluebird and his two fledglings at our birdbath. The male had been teaching his two offspring to hunt for food in the grass and brought them to the birdbath to learn how to bathe. The two fledglings seemed to be teasing and arguing, and the male tried his best to referee! Sibling rivalry seems to exist in the bird world!
So, take time to watch a pair of birds over several months during the Spring and Summer seasons; you’ll have the opportunity to observe behaviors that sometimes seem so similar to human life. Plus, you’ll smile at some of their antics.
Identifying birds takes an interesting turn during the spring and fall migrations, especially if you live along a flyway. We live right on the eastern flyway, which brings visitors, such as robins, red-breasted grosbeaks, and certain species of warblers. They’ll stop for 1 to 3 days, hang out at our feeders or in the bordering woods, feeding on insects and worms in the yard.
If you are ever on the coast of North Carolina during the winter and are able to visit the Cape Hatteras area, look for the tundra swans that migrate by the thousands to that area. You can typically view them at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Birds are fascinating to study for many reasons ranging from practical to strategic. I addressed the following in a Why Study Birds? post, you can read for more information about each point.
- Birds are easy to find.
- Birds are beautiful.
- Birds can fly.
- Birds are diverse.
- Birds can serve as important environmental indicators.
- Fluctuations in bird populations can indicate ecosystem changes.
How To Study Birds?
One of the best things about studying birds is that you only need binoculars and a bird field guide. I recommend starting with good binoculars to reduce the frustration factor of cheap ones. This goes the same with the guidebook. I recommend Petersen’s Field Guide To Birds or the Audubon Society Field Guide To Birds for adults. I have had mine for years, and they have been all over the country with me. You can also use any birding apps on your phone to help identify birds.
If you have a decent camera, consider using it to zoom in on birds you spot to see detail. Or set up a tripod in front of a window (Make sure the glass is clean!) or out in your observation area. It takes some time to “train” the birds, but you can sit outside within range of a feeder with a camera and get the birds to come to a feeding station.
For young birders, I recommend Birds, Nests, And Eggs by Mel Boring. This is a beautiful, illustrated guidebook to common North American birds that describes the bird’s features, habitat and sounds they make. These are very important, especially when some birds are elusive and can be seen and not heard. This helps keep young birders from being discouraged.
Birds, Nests, And Eggs also describe birds’ nests and eggs. How often have you been out with your children on a nature walk or in the backyard and found a bird nest in a bush or one that had blown out of a tree? Have you ever seen a bird egg in the grass and wondered what bird it came from? This book can help solve those mysteries when identifying birds.
Children can learn about how different species of birds build their nests using other techniques and materials. Sometimes, finding a new bird nest is just as exciting as a new bird. It’s a bonus when you can find eggs in the nest!
Once you have your binoculars and guidebook, you must find a good place to observe. You need to observe birds from a close vantage point where you can see them, yet far enough away to view them without scaring them.
Binoculars come in handy so you can observe the birds from a farther distance. You can view birds from your kitchen window, a park bench, or sitting on a tree stump. You might want to bring a sketch pad or journal to record what you see.
If you have a decent mirrorless or DSLR camera, set it on a tripod. We have set ours up outside within 20 feet of a feeding station and captured some fantastic photos. It does take time for the birds to get accustomed to you being in the area, but over time, we were able to “blend” right in. We have even positioned ourselves 12″ from a hummingbird feeder to get video footage.
Once you start spending time identifying and observing birds, you’ll get addicted to it!
If you enjoy this hobby, check out the Great Backyard Bird Count, which happens each February and is sponsored by Cornell. It’s a great homeschool or classroom science activity.
Once you have your spot all set to observe, next comes the process of identifying birds you spot. This is where the guidebooks come in handy. Use them to identify the birds you spot. The Petersen’s bird guide and the Audubon Guide have checklists inside them to record the species you identify.
There are birding apps and bird-call apps that are helpful. I typically snap a photo and use Google Lens.
Make Your Own Suet Feeder
The take-along guidebook Birds, Nests, And Eggs has several hands-on activities. One is making your own suet feeder. Suet is animal fat rendered and formed into blocks or cakes. It is a high-fat, high-protein food source that is perfect for the winter months.
You can find prepared suet cakes in stores that sell bird food. Often bird seed, honey, or fruit is added to the suet for more nutritional value and to attract more types of birds. There are special suet feeders and baskets that you can buy for your suet. My favorite way is to make our own, just like they did in the Birds, Nests, And Eggs book.
I do not recommend making your own suet block, as it takes a particular type of animal fat and process that is just difficult to duplicate. Professionals do not recommend many recipes, so sticking with a premade block is the best option.
All you need is a plastic mesh sack like the ones onions or oranges come in and a suet cake. The mesh sack must have a hole in it large enough for the suet to fit through it but small enough that the suet won’t fall out. This works best if the hole is near the top of the sack.
Remove the suet cake from its wrapper. Place the suet inside and tie or fasten the sack around a tree branch. I used a large paper clip to do the job. You will attract birds like chickadees, woodpeckers, blue jays, nuthatches, titmice, and other birds.