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Backyard Birding For Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

Andrew Dehan11-Minute Read
August 18, 2020

If you’re interested in wildlife, there’s no time like the present to take up bird watching. Whether you live in the city, suburbs or somewhere more rural, there are birds everywhere. You can spot them from your porch or while relaxing in your backyard.

You don’t need to have a large yard. Chances are if you look up you’ll see birds perched on a nearby branch or telephone line.

Read on to get the lowdown on the info and gear you need to get started backyard birding.

Why Start Backyard Birding?

Backyard birding is an easy, low-cost activity you can enjoy in your own yard. You can sit outside, de-stress and look out for birds. Learning how to identify birds can get you in tune with the nature happening around your home.

It’s a great way to step outside the noise of your day-to-day life and appreciate your surroundings. You can enjoy your landscape and make the most of your yard.

Plus, you can impress your friends and family with all the bird species you know.

Backyard Birding Essentials

You could scrape by using your eyes and web searches but having a pair of binoculars and a guide handy will make you a better birder. Learn how to use these tools and grow your knowledge about birds.

Binoculars 

Not all binoculars are created equally. You need to find a pair that works well for you. For $25 you can get a compact pair of folding binoculars. If you’re dipping your toes in and aren’t going to be traveling with them, these are a great option.

For more money, you can get pairs with more features, some more useful than others. If you plan on taking these binoculars beyond your backyard, it may be smart to invest in a pair that’s durable, light and waterproof.  

Bird Guide

A good guide is essential for learning about birds. It will teach you how to identify birds and parse the differences among species. Guides can come in different forms.

  • Simple cards – Cards are a great visual aide for identifying birds. While they’re basic, their simple nature makes easy to use. Plus, they’re great tools for birding with kids.
  • Books – If you want to go deep, a birding guidebook is a great place to start. Look for one that specializes in birds found in your region. Books can range from intro levels to more advanced. If you’re looking to get away from a screen, a guidebook is a great option.
  • Mobile apps – An app on your phone is the most practical. You’ll be able to search for birds based on your region and the time of year. While convenient, phones are distracting and if you spend too much on them, you’ll miss the birds.

How To Attract Backyard Birds

While birds are everywhere, there are some surefire ways to bring them to your backyard in droves. If you put some effort in, you’ll have birds flocking. Providing basics like food, water, shelter and nesting spots will bring all the birds to your yard.

Bird Food & Feeders

It’s no secret that bird feeders work well to bring birds around. Once one bird finds your food source, all the birds are going to know. While most songbirds eat a variety of foods, species have differences on which they prefer, and when.

  • Seeds – Songbirds love seeds. Sunflower seeds are a favorite of cardinals, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Nuts like pistachios and peanuts attract titmice and chickadees. For goldfinches, niger seed is a must. Seed mixes will attract a variety of birds.
  • Insects – Songbirds eat insects like flies, worms and beetles, too. They feed insects to their offspring in the late spring and early summer. Caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers and ants are food sources for birds from bluebirds to warblers to orioles. Chances are plenty of insects already live in your backyard. Putting in a spring garden will boost their presence and cause more birds to come.
  • Sugar water – For hummingbirds, sugar water is a must. Sugar water feeders also attract orioles and tanagers. Other birds, such as mockingbirds and grosbeaks, also drink nectar. You can make this sugar water solution at home easily.
  • Berries – Berries are a big hit with birds. Having plants in your yard that produce berries will draw birds. They love many berries you may enjoy, like strawberries and blueberries, but also fruits that you would never eat. Eastern redcedar, winterberry and chokeberry plants all produce bitter berries that birds love.

If you don’t have a yard full of the plants birds love, you can put out feeders to bring in more birds. There are different styles of feeders for the purpose.

  • Platform feeders – A simple design, with a platform on a pole or ledge. They’re easy to clean and attract many bird species. Their downside is that they’re accessible by squirrels and deer, who will devour anything you put out.
  • Tube feeders – Tube feeders work well at protecting the seed, while still giving small birds like chickadees and finches a chance to feed. They deter bigger, competitive birds like blue jays. Some tube feeders are somewhat squirrel-proof, as well.
  • Suet feeders – Suet cakes can be hung in a suet feeder, where birds can access the feed through a wire mesh. Hanging these so birds must hang upside-down to feed will deter larger, competitive birds.
  • Hummingbird feeders – These feeders are designed to hold the nectar substitutes that attract hummingbirds.

Birdbaths And Water Features

Water is important for birds to drink and bathe in no matter what the season. A clean birdbath or water feature will attract more birds. Here are some of the most common birdbaths and water features.

  • Ground – This style of birdbath mimics what birds look for naturally: puddles. They’re easy to place and move, and more suitable for ground-feeding birds like grouse and juncos.
  • Pedestal – A pedestal birdbath is a great contribution to your garden, with the benefit of raising the birds off the ground, making them more visible.
  • Hanging – Hang a birdbath from a shepherd’s hook or a tree branch and the birds will go to it. It won’t take up ground space, and hanging birdbaths are a cinch to clean.
  • Fountain – For a more ornate bath, you could install a fountain water feature. Birds prefer moving water, so they’ll love it. Fountains are more expensive to install, operate and maintain than the other options.

Birdhouses And Nesting Boxes

To feel at home in your yard, birds need to make their home in your yard. Birdhouses and nesting boxes. If you want to put in a birdhouse or a nesting box, do some research first. Just as not all human homes are equal, not all bird homes are either. What works for one species may not work for another.

Here are the first things to consider when providing shelter.

  • Size of entry hole – The hole needs to be big enough so birds can get in and out, but small enough that larger critters can’t get in.
  • Easy viewing and observation – Make sure that wherever you put the birdhouse, you can see it. You want to make sure it’s being used, and not by a mischievous squirrel.
  • Proper ventilation and drainage – No bird wants to stand in a damp or flooded birdhouse. Make sure the birdhouse drains when it rains.
  • Easy access for cleaning – Don’t be the person with the birdhouse high up in the tree. Hang it from a lower branch or from a shorter post so you can clean it out if you need to.

Tips For Backyard Birding

If you’re paying attention, you can see birds anytime and anywhere when you’re outdoors. They may be perched on a wire, in a tree or riding the wind above your head.

If you want to optimize your viewing experience so you see more birds, keep in mind the time of day, weather and how still you’re being.

Bird At Dawn Or Dusk

Birds are the most active at dawn at dusk. Have you ever slept with your window open, only to be woken up before the sun by loud chirping? Congratulations! You’ve experienced birds at their most vocal time.

If you’re not an early riser, bird at dusk. Plenty of birds will be out as the sun’s going down, cooling off in a bath or looking for food.

Watch On Sunny Days

Like most people, birds are more active on sunny days. Sunning helps birds survive. In colder climates, it warms them up. The heat their feathers absorb will cause parasites to move to less hot areas. This is why birds often preen after sunbathing.

Blend In

While birding, you need to remain quiet. This is as much a part of looking for birds as it is relaxing. You don’t need camouflage. You just need to sit still and make no sudden movement or loud noises.

Remain patient. Peer through your binoculars. Focus on the world happening in your backyard. This is the practice of birding. You can have all the gear and guidebook knowledge, but if you can’t relax, you’ll scare the birds away.

Common Types Of Birds

When you first start birding, get familiar with the most common bird species. These are the base-level species every North American birder should know. Get these basic types down before progressing to rarer or harder-to-find birds.

Northern Cardinal

The northern cardinal is one of the most recognized birds in North America, and the most popular state bird. The male cardinal is almost all red, with a red crest on the top of the head and a black mask around the beak and eyes. Females are a reddish-olive color with a gray mask.

The male marks its territory with song. They are known to have at least 28 different distinct songs, using these songs in courtship and to keep other cardinals away. Females sing, too, often with a softer song from a concealed nest.

northern cardinals on a branch

Mourning Dove

The mourning dove is the most widespread dove in North America. Also known as the turtle dove, they are a neutral brown and gray in color, with large eyes. Unlike cardinals, the males and females look similar.

Mourning doves are characterized by two sounds: the cooing sound made by males to attract females and the whistling sound their wings make when taking off.

mourning doves in the grass

American Crow

Part of the same family (Corvidae) as ravens, the American crow is one of the smartest birds in North America. They are one of the only species who has been observed using and adapting tools to get food. They are opportunistic omnivores, feeding on mice, frogs, eggs, carrion, nuts and seeds, human food scraps and crops like corn.

The most usual call from a crow is its typical Caw! Caw! Caw! They can produce a wide variety of other sounds and have been known to mimic noises made by other animals.

black American crow

Dark-Eyed Junco

A type of sparrow, the dark-eyed junco, is a migratory bird with many different subspecies. They are small, grayish birds found as far south as El Paso, Texas, in the winter months, and ranging deep into the arctic in the summer. Their main habitat is coniferous forests.

Their song is characterized by a complex trill. Calls can include tick-sounds and high-pitched chips.

dark eyed junco bird perched on a tree

White-Breasted Nuthatch

This songbird is known for living and feeding upside-down. It’s a prolific climber, searching out nuts and insects in trees, with an ability to climb headfirst down trees. It’s known for hiding food in loose bark for later. These birds prefer old-growth forests.

It has a white breast, black cap and pale blue-gray upperparts. Like other songbirds, it can be noisy and has a wide variety of songs and calls.

white-breasted nuthatch on a tree trunk

Hairy Woodpecker

The hairy woodpecker resembles another bird on this list, the downy woodpecker. The hairy woodpecker is the larger of the two, with a bigger build and bill. Hairy woodpeckers prefer deciduous forests where they can excavate holes in the tree to lay their eggs.

Along with their chittering mating call, you can also hear these birds thudding at the sides of trees.

hairy woodpecker bird pecking at a tree

American Goldfinch

Like cardinals, goldfinches differ in plumage depending on whether the bird is male or female. They also molt, so the birds change color depending on the season.

In the summer, males are the bright yellow for which they are named, but in the winter their plumage fades to an olive. Females change similarly, though less dramatically, brightening slightly in the summer.

These birds are granivores, meaning they feed almost exclusively on seeds. In the summer, it will feed on seeds from annuals like sunflowers, dandelions, and ragweed. In winter months, when food is less plentiful, they will frequent feeders, preferring to eat Niger seed.

yellow American goldfinch perched on a twig

Downy Woodpecker

The downy woodpecker is the smallest and most abundant woodpecker in North America. They have an enlarged, strong brain case and skull to protect their brain while pecking.

Their habitat is mainly deciduous forests, where the bore out trees to nest and look for insects. In winter, downy woodpeckers are more likely to feed on suet cakes in mesh feeders.

While they have many calls, they also drum against trees to communicate with other woodpeckers.

downy woodpecker on a tree

Tufted Titmouse

The tufted titmouse is a small songbird found in the eastern half of the United States. Its habitat is wooded areas along with gardens and parks. They have white fronts with gray upperparts and rust-tinged sides. They display curiosity towards humans, and can be seen perching on window ledges, peering inside.

Their calls vary, but the most distinct song is a whistled peter-peter-peter. This song has been noted to vary in as many as 20 different ways.

tufted titmouse bird

Black Capped Chickadee

These energetic little songbirds live in deciduous and mixed forests in the northern half of the United States. They have a black cap and bib, with white on the sides of their faces, white chests and underparts, with gray backs and wings.

They are named after their specific call: chick-a-dee-dee-dee. They also have a simpler fee-bee call, as well as a gargle noise males use to threaten attacking another male bird.

black capped chickadee

House Sparrow

The house sparrow is the most widely distributed bird in the world. It’s a small bird that varies in color from pale brown and gray to more distinct white, black, gray and brown patterns. It is strongly associated with human habitats, and lives in urban and rural areas.

It is an opportunistic feeder but prefers to feed on grains and seeds. These birds often gather in trees and bushes to sing together.

house sparrow perched on a wooden post

Blue Jay

Part of the same family as crows and ravens (Corvidae), the blue jay is one of the most recognizable birds in North America. It inhabits much of the central and eastern United States year-round in both forests and suburban areas.

Its chest and underparts are white, with a characteristic blue top and back. Blue jays are very territorial and have been known to attack anyone that gets too close to their nest. When they’re aggressive, their blue crest perks up and settles back when they’re calm.

blue jay on a branch

European Starling

The common starling aka European starling is a medium-sized songbird. Their plumage is iridescent black, glossy purple or green and speckled in white. Along with their coloring, their short tail and sharp pointed bill make them easy to pick out from other songbirds.

European starlings are very noisy, ranging from melodic songs to noises and calls. The male songsters link their songs together to produce melodies that last more than a minute. Each bird has its own repertoire of songs and sounds. The more complex, the better they are at defending their territory and finding a mate.

European starling on a branch

The Bottom Line On Backyard Birding

Whether you live in the city with a small yard or have a stretch of acreage, birds are living and thriving there. If you want to start birding, equip yourself with some binoculars and a guidebook. Draw more birds to your yard with bird baths, feeders and birdhouses.

Then sit back and observe. Birding should be relaxing, putting you in touch with the nature in your backyard. Enjoy your yard, consider the birds and lose the worries of your world for a moment.

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Andrew Dehan

Andrew Dehan is a professional writer who writes about real estate and homeownership. He is also a published poet, musician and nature-lover. He lives in metro Detroit with his wife, daughter and dogs.