How to Watch a Bird

You don't need to know a pigeon from a pewee to enjoy a good gaze at a feathered friend.

| September/October 2008

Rose-breasted grosbeak

Rose-breasted grosbeak

Robert Servranckx

You already know, of course, how to watch a bird. You’ve done it hundreds of times. You notice a bird in a bush or tree. You turn your head and watch. Few acts in life are easier or, for ever-curious humans, more instinctive. Our eyes seem naturally drawn to the feathered friends that share our world.

From time to time, if not regularly, you probably use a pair of binoculars to get a better look at a bird, too. You hold the binoculars up to your eyes and – presto – your object of admiration comes into closer focus. You can see more details, more action, more of the bird’s birdish self.

What I offer here are some simple ways to put a little figurative zoom in those binoculars – tips for other techniques you can use to get a closer view and understanding of the birds around you. I hope they help.

Watch first, identify later

When you watch a bird, what is your first thought? Chances are, you immediately ask yourself, what kind is it, or tell yourself, that’s a (fill in the blank here; cardinal, blue jay, whatever). This is another apparent human instinct, the urge to put names to all creatures great and small.

The next time you notice an unfamiliar bird, resist that inner voice asking you what kind is it. Do not reach for a field guide. In most cases, by the time you look up the what-is-it, the whatever-it-was will have already flown the coop.

Instead, take some time to really watch the bird: its beauty, its behavior, its personality. When it comes right down to it, that’s the real reason why all of us – casual watchers and serious birders alike – enjoy watching birds; simply for their antics, their diversity, their mastery of flight, their songs, their charm, their cheer. Focus on those. You can look up names later.

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