Birding for beginners

5 tips to get started birding or bird-watching

Wildlife & wild places

Tips & Guides


Emily Kowalski | TPIN

Birding, intentionally watching and listening to birds, can be a fun and meaningful way to connect with wildlife and the natural world around you. It can be done nearly anywhere — on an outdoor adventure, while walking in your neighborhood, or even simply looking out your living room window.

Birds will make you laugh, fascinate you and make you wonder what it’s like to see the land from a sky high view. Birding has even been linked to lowering levels of depression and anxiety.

It also gives bird populations a better chance to persevere. The more we observe them, track where they are going and when they get there, the better we can protect them. This is essential when you consider that bird populations have declined by three billion in North America since 1970. In other words, in just 50 years, more than one in four birds have disappeared from our skies.

If you’re ready to take up birding as a hobby, here are 5 tips for getting started.

Tips for beginner birders:

1. Start in your neighborhood.

You don’t need fancy binoculars or to visit a remote location to enjoy birding. The next time you hear a bird call or see a wing flutter, pause to appreciate the birds around you even if you are just in your backyard or community park. I love a good trip to a wildlife refuge or large natural area to view wildlife, but most of my birding happens at Humboldt Park in Chicago, a short walk from my house.

Plus, by birding in your own neighborhood you can also gain a greater understanding of the ecosystem where you live.

2. Be quiet and listen.

If you talk to a seasoned birder they will probably tell you that they usually hear the bird before they see it. Even in a busy city like Chicago with the noise of cars, trains and people, I can hear the distinct call of sandhill cranes when they are migrating overhead. Bird songs and calls can be easy to stop and listen for, but you have to really listen. Sometimes the noise indicating a bird is nearby isn’t even its call, instead it is the rustle of leaves or the tapping of a tree.

3. Get help with bird identification.

You can find helpful field guides online or download a bird identification app to learn more about the species you are seeing. The Field Museum has a useful summer bird field guide for Chicago and lots of birders use the Merlin Bird ID app, which helps narrow down potential bird species based on characteristics that you input. It even has a sound identification feature if you are able to record the bird call. Of course, an old fashioned bird book that is specific to your region can also be a handy resource, especially when you are out of cell range.

As you learn more about different bird species you can keep track of what different types of birds you see or hear. The birding community calls this your “life list” where you keep track of different bird species that you spot. eBird is a resource that tracks your sightings, allows you to see what others have seen at birding “hotspots” around the world, and uses your bird sighting data for conservation research. There are lots of apps for your phone that you can use for your life list, or a spare notebook or journal will work too.

Ryan Magsino |

4. Give birds space.

Always give wildlife plenty of space. You don’t want your birding to cause harm, and these are wild animals who will protect themselves and their territory if you get too close. Although there is a lot of birding that you can do with the naked eye, binoculars can help you see birds better while maintaining your distance.

5. Share your new hobby.

Birding is even better with friends. Invite a friend to join you for a birding adventure. My friends know that if we are having a picnic and I stop talking abruptly and look up there is probably a bird close by. Many of them have even started pointing birds out to me before I see them.

Birding is also a great way to meet new people. Many communities have informal facebook groups that host meetups or community organizations that organize birding trips with local experts. By meeting some birders more experienced than you and joining them on a walk, you might pick up some new birding skills.

Take photos, just remember to give birds their space. I love having even the grainy far away photos to remember that I did, in fact, see that bald eagle or other significant sighting. Remembering those moments are part of the fun!

Here is a Northern Flicker that I photographed on the North Branch Trail in Chicago from pretty far away with my phone camera.

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

If you share your photos on social media, it’s important to not do so in a way that will cause a crowd that will disturb the wildlife. For example, it is recommended to not give exact locations of a sighting, particularly for species that are more rare and may prompt other birders to try to spot it themselves.

Birds need our help

To continue to enjoy birding, we need to protect the birds and their habitat where they find shelter and food.

In addition to habitat for birds that live in your area year-round, your area likely sees migratory birds pass through, many of which need stopover habitat to rest and refuel along their journey. Here in Chicago, every spring and fall millions of migratory fliers migrate across the Great Lakes. Urbanization, invasive species, pollution and climate change along the coasts of the Great Lakes have limited the amount of stopover habitat available for the birds. To restore shoreline habitat, Chicago Park District recently established the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, a 100-acre strip of urban wilderness along the shore of Lake Michigan. The park hosts native prairie, savanna and woodland habitats that are important sanctuaries for migratory birds and other animal and plant species.

There is still more to do both here in Chicago and wherever you live. By planting native plants in your own yard, you can help cultivate critical habitat for wildlife that live in or visit your neighborhood. And by protecting remaining wetlands, woodlands and other natural habitats, as well as finding ways to restore some of what has been lost, we can support our feathered neighbors and enjoy watching their flights of fancy for years to come.

Some of Emily’s favorite bird sightings in Chicago

This cedar waxwing family was seen in the tree right outside my living room window.

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

Spring is a great time to go birding with migratory and resident birds able to be spotted in much of the US.

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

Many birds can be found by water, like this Great Blue Heron.

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

Sometimes the noise indicating a bird is nearby isn’t even its call, instead it is the rustle of leaves or the tapping of a tree.

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

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Emily Kowalski

Outreach & Engagement Manager, Environment Illinois

Emily manages the marketing and public engagement strategy for Environment Illinois's campaigns, including our campaign to protect the Great Lakes from plastic pollution. Emily lives in Chicago where she enjoys knitting and biking.