Hi, what’s up? I have depression and ADHD. Also, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed from the title, I like birds.
The combination of all of this means that I’d see a bird fly around and get distracted from a conversation. I had no idea why it was interesting to me, and I felt like working out how to get better at it would take too much effort to be worthwhile. Even though birding seemed cool, the payoff was too far out of my grasp for my brain to permit entry.
Not to mention that birding seemed to be recognizing songs, flight patterns, seasons, size, minute colorations, and a million other details that I thought I’d need to get perfectly right to be a birder. After all, if I couldn’t get it perfectly right, how could I enjoy it?
Well, it turns out that birds are fucking weird and cool. Also, the aspects I was anxious about were smaller hurdles than I’d thought, especially when I was birding with someone.
Before I get into that, though, get a load of that thing! This is a cassowary, one of the deadliest animals to humans specifically. It looks like you could just take those legs and that head and put them right in a Jurassic Park movie and no one would ask questions. It’s literally just got a hole in its head for an ear. Walking around, they look like a person in a bad Halloween costume that still somehow cost them thousands of dollars. When you Google them, the top suggestions are claw, attack, Australia (where it lives, of course), and velociraptor!
They’re ridiculous and awful and horrifying, and I absolutely love them. I could do this for every bird I know even though I don’t like all of them.
Anyway, enough about why birds are cool. Let’s crash a gate.
As often happens when your loved ones find out about you liking a thing, they get you the most popular items that seem the most useful. Since they don’t have a clue what you actually need, they base their purchase off a search or asking a bookstore employee what’s best.
So I received the Sibley Guide to Birds and a lot of things like it. Plus some hiking guides, handouts, whatever. Everything looked like that picture. I could open a book and see a bird from every angle, at every stage of life, where they lived, when, how many inches long they usually were, and so on. It’s neat! And pretty! If you’re studying birds, like hardcore studying them, these are beyond useful, but I just flat out didn’t know how to use it. (Now, I feel the need to say that if you’re reading this and you got me something like this, I do actually appreciate it. I’m just using it as an example.)
If I’m out walking with my dog and I think a bird is cool and want to know more about it, what info do I need from the bird to ID it? How can I learn more? I needed a book that was so straightforward, it took next to no effort for me to use.
Stan Tekiela’s field guides are the easiest to use set I’ve found, by a huge margin. I don’t remember who got me the first of these, but I’m forever grateful. The pages are color-coded and there’s one bird per page and the info is presented uniformly across each bird. It even has an “often confused with” section for many birds, because the goal is to make identifying them as easy as possible.
These books, above all else, helped me learn what birds were in my area, and I can’t recommend Stan Tekiela’s field guides enough. There is one for each state in the US, plus some other specialty ones. Unfortunately, it looks like the guides only cover birds in the 50 states.
I would suggest for people outside the US to look for one similar. The color coding helped me a lot. These are often called “field guides,” but sometimes a field guide is for scientists or dedicated naturalists with established knowledge on the subject. Check reviews to see how readable it is; drop your finds in the comments!
On top of knowing visual cues of birds, it can help to know how to identify songs. This could alert you to look for a specific bird. Plus, you can’t always see the birds or make out their details, but listening to them can still let you know they’re there. So hearing a Great Horned Owl and knowing they’re nearby can be just as cool, even if they’re too perfectly camouflaged to spot with your eyes.
Of course identifying a songs can be really important and cool, but it’s really tough to get a handle on how to even start. Unfortunately, it’s next to impossible for a book to help you perfectly translate “pooteeweet” of a bird, and even worse, it can’t help you differentiate that sound from the “pootuhweet” of another bird. Luckily, we live in a digital age, so we have access to apps.
Merlin Bird ID specifically allows you to input your location and press a button to have the app listen for songs, and it’s surprisingly good at identifying them! The app also has high quality recordings of different bird songs, even ones of different regional dialects and meanings! Plus, knowing the meanings can multiply your birds-per-bird spotting because it can help you know when a bird is trying to get lucky (bird attracting more birds for you) or trying to warn that a hawk is in the area (bird spotted another bird for you).
iNaturalist and eBird are two more fantastic apps for helping identify the natural world.
eBird allows you to report and record bird spotting locations. Think of it kind of like a potential news app for birds. Since it has historical data, too, you can use it to narrow down your pool of potential birds you’re spotting based on what other people have reported!
iNaturalist has some bird info, but it’s largely for plants. I wanted to include it here because while you’re out and about, you can look down instead of up! iNaturalist allows you to upload a picture of a plant, and then it gives you a bunch of pictures of what it might be based on a bunch of different factors. You can easily click into each and learn more about it! It’s very cool!
For other non-digital birding equipment, the Audubon Society has a great guide for picking out good binoculars as well as guides on things that might be useful to bring or to wear when you’re going on big deal excursions looking for birds. Neither is by any means necessary, but both can be helpful if you want to add birdwatching to your hiking or other outdoor hobbies or if you want to get a birder you know a great gift for spotting far away birds!
Finally, I’d like to zoom out from equipment a bit and talk about another barrier that people encounter too often in birding: This is a hobby that people of marginalized identities, people with mobility issues, and people with sensory impairments have often found difficult to get into. There’s no easy way to overcome that marginalization or disability (as I’m sure you already know), but that doesn’t mean birding can’t still be for you!One of these hurdles is that birding often requires you to go outside. This doesn’t fully resolve the issue, but luckily, there are plenty of ways to bring birds to you and watch from the comfort of your own home by leaving out feeders (here’s another Audubon guide). Plus, there are tons of birds where there are people! Roads, powerlines, pollution, and lack of habitat may keep many birds from hanging out near you, but I guarantee that no matter where you are, there are goofy little birds to spot and to chuckle at, whether you’re in your hometown or traveling.
On a larger scale, several organizations like the Audubon Society, Birdability, or the British Birding for All, have done important work not only pushing for natural conservation but also doing material good overcoming these barriers. Through pushing things like Black Birders Week, they hope to prevent people from policing others away from hobbies and joy.
There are many broader issues that hold marginalized people back from getting into birding like lack of access to green spaces, often prohibitive cost of resources, exclusion from public spaces, or even something as simple as work schedules! People working multiple jobs may not really be able to find the daylight to get out and about in this way. These are things that require larger structural change to solve. That’s not something birding can do alone, but it is something that birding can help through building healthy, uplifting communities.
The biggest thing you can do to help is to be welcoming and helpful on a small scale and push for change on a larger scale. Don’t make fun of people for not knowing things or having difficulty with certain actions. Guide gently and warmly and refuse absolutely any exclusionary behavior within a space. Support initiatives that do the same.This isn’t just birding advice; this is life advice now. We live in a world of artificial scarcity of goods and of happiness. It does no good to add to that. There’s actually plenty to go around if we push against what keeps others from sharing in our joy. If you’re in a position to do so, push for inclusionary policies and environmental conservation, do volunteer work, include people of marginalized identities, listen, and hold yourself and others accountable.
And if folks try to keep you down, make like a cassowary and go Jurassic Park on their asses.