Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Start Birding

Bird watching
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By now, you’ve probably memorized the view from every window in your home. And since taking a (careful) walk around the block is the only leisurely way to get out of the house these days, you’ve probably become intimately familiar with every crack in the sidewalk, every pothole on the street, and every yard in your neighborhood.

But there’s another way to add a little more zest to your quarantine routine right now: birdwatching.

There’s never been a better time to take up this low-effort, affordable hobby. Looking out the window above my work-from-home desk, I’ve noticed majestic bald eagles soaring overhead, angular blue jays trilling to each other, tiny red-headed house finches flitting from bush to bush, and polka-dotted flickers drumming on trees with their beaks. Even if you live in the heart of a big city, you can still see and hear birds, once you make a point of noticing them. 

During this weird and challenging time, birding can serve as a welcome distraction, even when you’re stuck in one place. You’ll learn something new about your environment, like whether it’s along a migration path or serves as a safe haven during breeding season. It’s a bit like playing tourist in your own neighborhood.

Birding can also help you practice mindfulness, a particularly useful skill during this anxiety-inducing time. It can give your brain a break from racing thoughts, even if just for a few seconds at a time, and can help you remember to appreciate your surroundings.

Plus, when this is all over, you’ll have gained a new hobby in quarantine that you can take with you during future travels. One of the best ways to explore a new destination is through birding, which can take you to some off-the-beaten-path places and help you meet locals.

Hummingbird In Flight
Raymond Haddad / 500px / Getty Images

How to Get Started

Anyone can become a birder. All you have to do is start noticing the birds around you—perched atop city streetlights, flitting about your yard, flying overhead, resting on power lines. That’s it. You’re a birder now. 

Although you don’t technically need any equipment to get started (just your eyes and ears!), there are a few tools that can make this hobby more fun.

A good pair of binoculars or a scope can be helpful for observing birds at a distance. These help you see and appreciate small details, such as the shimmery iridescence of a bird’s feathers in direct sunlight or the shape of its beak.

Historically, birders have carried around field guides—small books containing pictures, drawings and detailed descriptions—to help them identify different species of birds. But today, all you really need is your smartphone. 

A handful of easy-to-use apps can help you identify a particular bird you’ve spotted or heard based on its size, shape, color, behavior, and sounds. Others can provide a list of birds you’re most likely to see based on your location and the time of year. If you’re just getting started, these apps can help you know what to look for; Merlin Bird ID, eBird, and Audubon Bird Guide are popular free options.

You can birdwatch at any time of day, but there are a few prime times for doing so. Birds tend to be more active in the morning, especially during the summer months. Dusk is also a good time to step outdoors or look out your window, as certain species move from their feeding grounds to their preferred sleeping habitat as the sun is setting.

And while birding might seem like a hobby that mostly engages your eyes, be sure to stop and listen, too; you’ll often hear a bird before you see it. 

If you’re out walking around, take your time, move slowly, and be patient. Keep your gaze moving, and look for any signs of movement. Trees are obvious places to look for birds, but also be sure to scope out bushes, fence posts, power lines, and bodies of water. On a sunny day, you may see a bird’s shadow on the ground as it flies overhead.

Other birding tips:

  • Don’t get so caught up following birds that you accidentally trespass on private property or wander into prohibited areas.
  • Always walk toward a bird, then put your binoculars to your eyes. (If you try to walk and look through your binoculars at the same time, you’re likely to trip and hurt yourself.) 
  • If you’re planning a longer birding outing, be sure to bring water, sunscreen, bug spray, and any other outdoor-related gear that you would take on a hike or a walk. 
  • Be sure to respect any closures or posted rules meant to protect nesting birds. Your city or county’s wildlife officials know what they’re doing, and they need everyone to follow the rules.

Birding When You Travel

When life gets back to normal (eventually!), you’ll have added a new activity to your repertoire that can help you meet new people, appreciate your natural surroundings, and view travel destinations through a new lens.

When it’s safe to go out again, connect with local birding groups or organizations in your area and join them for a bird walk or an outing. One of the best ways to become a better birder is to spend time with more experienced hobbyists who can point out clues you may have missed or shed light on bird behaviors.

Start researching and visiting known birding hotspots in your community. Or simply incorporate birding into your everyday outings, whether you’re walking the dog or getting the mail. 

When you start planning your next trip, spend a few minutes researching the most common birds in the area so you’ll be prepared when you arrive. Consider sprinkling some birding or general nature time into your itinerary.

The next time you take your daily quarantine walk, leave your earbuds at home, put your phone in your pocket, and keep your eyes and ears open to notice a flash of color, a ruffle of feathers, or tiny chirps. You’ll be glad you did.