Spread your Wings: A Beginner’s Guide to Birding — Wherever You Might Be

Spread your Wings: A Beginner’s Guide to Birding — Wherever You Might Be

In light of this year’s societal upheaval, many have taken to acquiring a new skill or hobby. Learning a language, honing your baking skills, trying out a new craft like knitting or painting — these are all fine endeavors. But if you find yourself wanting a hobby that takes you outside, look no further than birding!

A marsh wren perched on a cattail. Photo credit: Rob Kanter

Highly visible and vocal members of the animal kingdom, birds are perhaps the most abundant wildlife most of us encounter in our day to day lives. With a dazzling variety of plumage, calls, and behaviors, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of these feathery fiends.

Rob Kanter, an Environmental Writing Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Illinois, wildlife photographer, and author of the popular local Environmental Almanac blog, put it eloquently: “Birding is a way of connecting with the natural world. Birds are just so, so beautiful — I can’t imagine not wanting to know more about them.”

The idea of getting started as a birder can be daunting. With so many unique species out there, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and underinformed. Kanter, like many other seasoned birders, is quick to encourage anyone to just dive in:

“I got a field guide, and I just got started. Our culture places such a premium on experts and training, but you can start exactly where you are.”

Two male wood ducks showing off their iridescent plumage. Photo credit: Rob Kanter

You don’t need anything special to start birding — just go outside and take in the ecosystem. Birding is all about attentive watching and listening.

“You can learn so much about ecology just from paying attention to what’s going on around you,” Kanter said.

A field guide, such as The Sibley Guide to Birds, will help you get acquainted with the species you’re seeing, as will a bird identification app like Merlin. Binoculars are great for getting a better look at distant birds, though you certainly don’t need them to get started.

As you begin birding, some of the best things to learn right away are the calls of common birds in your area. Learning to identify the most common 20% of your local species typically will allow you to identify 80% of the individual birds you come across. Specifically, knowing their calls is important because you’ll often hear a bird before you see it.

A downy woodpecker — the most abundant woodpecker in Illinois. Photo credit: Rob Kanter

“There seems to be two different types of people when it comes to learning bird calls. People who need a mnemonic for the bird call, and people who need to know what it sounds like,” said Brodie Dunn, an alumnus of the School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois and current Head Chair of the Champaign County Audubon Society.

For example, some birders learn the tufted titmouse’s song by remembering that it’s almost like the bird is saying, “Peter-Peter-Peter.” Others focus on the sound of the song rather than putting a mnemonic to it.

If you decide to study up on songs and calls, audio guides are the way to go. You can play them during a car ride and they’ll walk you through each bird and what it sounds like. “Who Cooks for Poor Sam Peabody” is perfect for those who like mnemonics; those who prefer learning without them will enjoy the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.

No matter where you go — around campus, your neighborhood, or a forest preserve — you’ll see and hear a splendid variety of birds. In Urbana-Champaign, Crystal Lake Park and adjacent Busey Woods are standout birding spots, especially for species that prefer woodland habitat, such as woodpeckers.

An immature cooper’s hawk surveying campus from atop a fence. Photo credit: Rob Kanter

Southeast of campus, you might visit Meadowbrook Park, which features an accessible paved trail through prairie habitat. If you’ve ever wanted to be serenaded by the songs of dozens of red-winged blackbirds, this is the place to go. And if you want to go birding from the comfort of campus, I recommend a walk around the University of Illinois Arboretum on South Lincoln Avenue.

Even though birding is a fantastic way to get outdoors, you can enjoy bird watching at home, too! Bird feeders and bird baths provide food and water for local birds and let you see them up close, right outside your window.

Dunn shared his techniques for attracting birds:

“Getting birds to recognize that your place has food can take a long time. I threw out some birdseed on the sidewalk next to my feeder, so that ground foraging birds would take notice. Also, if you have the sound of running water, that will attract them. I had a 5-gallon bucket that had a tiny hole poked in the side, so it had a little stream that trickled out into a small dish. The birds went crazy for that.”

A male Northern Cardinal and Dark-eyed Junco stand next to a tube feeder sat atop an apartment balcony on a snowy day. The feeder is secured in place with a rope fed through the top of the feeder.

A male northern cardinal and a dark-eyed junco enjoying a snack at the author’s feeders. Photo credit: April Wendling

For those who live in apartments or dorms, you don’t need a yard to set up a feeder or birdbath. A bit of innovation can go a long way. I set up a tube feeder on my balcony by placing it atop the railing and running a secured rope through the top of it to keep it stable during storms and windy days. A feeder setup can be as simple as keeping a sturdy tray secured outside your window and filling it with birdseed or water.

Even if you can’t set up a feeder where you are, there’s always the option to watch other feeders remotely. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology streams live footage from their feeders for all to enjoy.

Birding is also a great way to connect with others. Joining a group like the Illini Birding Club or your  local Audubon Society will enrich your birding experience — they provide an excellent opportunity for birders to learn from each other. Likewise, taking your family and friends out birding with you, even if they’ve never gone before, can be an enjoyable activity for all.

So look to the sky — the best time to start birding is any time you want to!


— Article by iSEE Communications Intern April Wendling