How I Became a Backyard Birder—and How You Can, Too

The spotted towhees are pissed. Instead of filling their birdbath promptly this morning, my husband and I made pancakes. I sip tea and watch them rampage through the mulch, raking bits of bark into the air with their tiny golden dinosaur feet. If I don’t act soon, they will move to the flowerpots and dig up any seedlings they find, in protest of our sloth. A pair of big fat robins look on, hopping around the trunks of the pine trees, their white-framed eyes comically indignant above their puffed-out orange breasts. I put on my garden clogs, grab the watering can, and head to the spigot. The air is full of house finch music. Before returning inside, I spot a juniper titmouse perched at the top of a juniper, a ball of pearl-gray floof in a pointed hat, trilling a couple rounds of mating call before launching into flight. It’s a darn peaceful feeling, being engaged with the comings and goings of my neighborhood’s feathered denizens. Not once do I pick up my phone to check the news.

Birding—the pastime of observing and listening to birds—is something I found gradually and casually. A high school environmental-science teacher made me memorize 20 or so Pacific Northwest species, laying the foundation for basic identifications like finch versus sparrow and how to tell a hawk from a vulture in flight. (Vultures have more splayed-out wing tips and look like a tippy V in the sky instead of a smooth-gliding kite.) When I moved to the East Coast, I delighted in spotting iconic cardinals, flashy orioles, and flirty mockingbirds. Eventually I married a former Eagle Scout with an impressive collection of field guides and a nice set of binoculars. We settled in Santa Fe, bought a house, and set about getting to know our new backyard friends.

(Photo: Aleta Burchyski)

I’ve been more hooked than ever since I started working from home this spring. Lying in bed each morning listening to the shifting mating-season choruses definitely beats stumbling off to the gym (not that it’s an option right now anyway). Watching the irate ballet of towhees and robins instead of compulsively scrolling on my phone makes me feel an actual sense of calm and connectedness to the moment amid the swirling chaos and unknown.

But perhaps the best thing about birding is that it’s an easy-access hobby, no crazy-expensive or cumbersome equipment required. Here are my six favorite tools for learning who’s who in your neighborhood.

‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America’ ($20)

For birding(Photo: Courtesy Houghton Mifflin)

Larger than a pocket-size field guide but smaller than a coffee-table tome, Peterson is the book that’s earned a permanent place on my windowsill next to the binoculars. The color plates are sharp and detailed, with black arrows highlighting key species’ characteristics, like wing bars and crown feathers. On-page range maps provide clarity if you’re not sure whether you’ve got a Carolina or Bewick’s wren. True beginners: check out the introduction, which walks you through the practical basics of how to identify birds and use the book.

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Song Sleuth App (Free)

For birding(Photo: Courtesy Wildlife Acoustics)

Much of the time, it’s easier to hear birds than it is to see them, which is frustrating. Song Sleuth is a brilliant tool for figuring out who’s trilling their head off at 7 A.M. outside your window. Set your state, select Record and ID, point your phone’s microphone at the source, and hit Record as soon as you hear the first few notes of the song. (The app smartly bumps the start of the recording back a few seconds from when you hit the button, so you don’t need lightning-fast reflexes to capture a perfect song.) When you’ve got your sample, the app’s algorithm compares the audio to a library of Cornell Lab of Ornithology recordings of more than 200 North American bird species. You’ll then get to peruse the top-three closest matches, each with a set of song and call recordings, species information, and a beautiful illustration by renowned ornithologist David Sibley. Pro tip: don’t start listening to recordings within earshot of the birds—they’ll think someone is crowding their turf and leave.

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Nocs Provisions Standard Issue 8×25 Waterproof Binoculars ($115)

For birding(Photo: Courtesy Nocs Provisions)

It’s easy to spend upward of $500 on field binoculars, but for the beginner or intermittent enthusiast, Nocs makes a solid pair at an affordable price. The 8x magnification (meaning you can see birds eight times closer than with the naked eye) lets you spot details—like eye-ring feathers and beak shapes—that can make or break a correct ID. The optics aren’t as crisp and tunable as my higher-end Celestron Granite 8×42’s ($350), but the Nocs weigh half as much (11.85 ounces), making them the pair I reach for when I’m scoping out a new face at the birdbath.

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Droll Yankees Onyx Clever Clean and Fill Mixed Seed Bird Feeder ($50)

For birding(Photo: Courtesy Droll Yankees)

It’s nice to give back to your new friendos and create a spot where you can view them chowing down. Droll Yankees is renowned for the quality of its USA-made feeders, which come with a lifetime warranty against squirrel damage. The Onyx Clever Clean and Fill features a twist-off base that makes for easy cleaning—important, since you should do this every two weeks. For food, ask your local bird shop or garden center for regional and seasonal recommendations, or try this crowd-pleasing blend from Wild Birds Unlimited.

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Merlin Bird ID App (Free)

For birding(Photo: Courtesy Cornell University)

Last week I spent hours flipping through books, trying to identify a fat gray bird with a very generic sparrow face and an orange undertail. After less than five minutes on Cornell Labs’ Merlin app, I pegged it as a canyon towhee. Once you download the info for your geographic area, the app uses four basic questions—date of sighting, bird size, bird color(s), and bird location—to give you a list of likely species, with clear, lush photos to make your ID, plus general info, geographical maps, and a library of songs and calls. Not quite sure what size the bird is? Or whether it’s orange or yellow? No big deal: simply change your answers and try again. If you’re in a browsing mood, the Explore Birds feature lets you scroll who’s likely to be in your area today based on migration patterns. 

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Aspects HummZinger Excel Hummingbird Built-In Ant Moat Feeder ($27)

For birding(Photo: Courtesy Aspect)

Hummingbirds are hilarious and an important pollinator. This workhorse feeder treats them right, with a dish configuration that resists mold better than bottle designs, and the moat up top prevents ants from invading. (You will have to refill the moat every couple days in summer, but it’s worth it.) At the start of the season, the nine-inch red lid never fails to quickly attract hummingbirds to my yard within a day or two. To make about 16 ounces of hummingbird food: bring two cups of water to a simmer, and whisk in a half-cup of pure white cane sugar (never raw, turbinado, or organic sugar, which contain iron-rich molasses that’s toxic to hummingbirds.) Let this cool to about room temperature, fill the feeder, add some water to the ant moat, and get ready for the action. When it’s time to refill, run it through the dishwasher on the top rack.

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Lead Photo: Aleta Burchyski

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