How to Watch a Bird

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Rose-breasted grosbeak
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Preening, as the cedar waxwing on the right is doing, is one bird behavior to watch for.
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A birder on a trail.
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A friendly scrub jay isn’t sure who is watching whom.
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Chipping sparrow with dinner secured.
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What would winter be without a red cardinal?
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A suet feeder got this white-breasted nuthatch’s attention.
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For this female bluebird, a corn planter is a great place to perch and watch for dinner.

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.

Get a window seat

Whoever coined the phrase “eats like a bird” never watched one. Most birds spend the better part of their days on the hunt for food. It takes a lot of fuel to keep a bird-size body warm and nourished.

The surest way to draw birds in for a closer look then, is to bribe them with easy meals. You probably already do this. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 53.4 million Americans regularly feed birds at backyard feeders.

But there’s a difference between feeding for feeding’s sake and feeding for watching. The key words here are location, location and location. If you want to get a close look at the birds visiting your backyard, serve their meals in places where you can easily and conveniently watch them.

In most cases that means you should put at least some of your feeders near windows, where you can comfortably view birds at your leisure indoors regardless of the weather.

If you’ve heard that countless birds are killed each year by accidentally flying into house windows, you’ve heard correctly. Birds can become confused by the reflections of vegetation and sky in windows and fly headlong into them. But it turns out that the best way to prevent this is to place feeders closer to windows – within three feet, according to studies. Birds at feeders that close are less likely to fly into a window, and they can’t build up sufficient speed to injure themselves anyway. It’s a win-win arrangement: You get a better view of feeder visitors, and they get a safer place to dine.

Most backyard species readily adapt to feeders close to homes and humans. To accommodate warier birds as well, place other feeders within easy view, too – but at least 30 feet from windows, where birds are more likely to acknowledge glass panes as parts of a house.

Dust off those binocs

For casual backyard bird peeping, the binoculars you already own are probably good enough. They might benefit from a quick cleanup, though. Dust accumulated on lenses over the years creates a barely visible but significant haze. Remove the dust and haze, and your binoculars brighten considerably.

The job takes only a few minutes. First, get rid of any loose dust on the lenses by blowing on them – preferably with a can of compressed air (sold at camera and computer stores), but lung power works, too. If you want, you can also use a camel’s-hair brush (sold at camera stores) to sweep away loose particles.

Next, moisten a cotton swab with any high-quality optical lens cleaning solution and lightly mop the glass surface. Or, in a pinch, just breathe on the lens surface to “moisten” it. Then immediately dry the lens with an optical cleaning cloth, lens paper or a piece of soft cotton using a light, circular motion.

There. You’re done. Try your “new” binoculars. See? Colors are more vivid, details clearer.

Another tip: For everyday window-side bird-watching, keep your binocs out of their case and at the ready, but do not stand them on end, where the exposed lenses will catch dust, nor put them in a sunny window, where heat can cloud the lenses internally. Lay your binoculars flat within easy reach in a cool, shaded spot.

Look up, look down

It’s only natural when watching backyard birds to focus on where the action is: at your feeders. But by limiting your looking to the birds that are right in front of you, you’ll miss the many species that forage for food in and around your yard, but don’t come to feeders.

The next time you’re gazing at a bird eating feeder seed, take time to redirect your vision up, down and around. Species such as dark-eyed juncos, towhees and mourning doves commonly search below feeders for scattered seed. But now look outward for other ground-foraging birds that stay farther away. Robins and bluebirds favor open grass; thrashers and thrushes forage in and along edges, where lawn meets shrubs or woods.

Likewise, turn your eyes skyward and scan the treetops. Have you noticed that you rarely see goldfinches, despite their bright yellow summer colors, except at feeders? That’s because they spend most of their hours high in the canopy, where humans rarely look. Take the time to do so, and you’ll likely spot finches and other upper-berth species, such as orioles and tanagers.

Focus on the details

Instead of looking at the sum of its parts – the whole bird – try zeroing in on just some of its parts. A bird’s details can tell you a lot about its life.

What shape bill is the bird you’re watching wearing? A bird’s bill, or beak, is a multitool uniquely designed for that species. Insect eaters such as vireos and wrens have dainty bills for plucking tiny bugs. Chickadees and titmice use short, stout bills for crushing insects and seeds; cardinals and jays have hefty bills for cracking nuts. The hummingbird’s needlenose; the woodpecker’s chisel; each bird’s bill is a clue.

Even a bill’s color can tell tales. You probably know that male cardinals are bright red, females brownish. But you can also tell a cardinal’s age, by the color of its bill: Young cardinals have black bills, adults’ bills are red or orange.

Try focusing on just one detail at a time of the birds in your yard: bills, feet, wings, tail size and shape, colors, patterns. Soon, by studying each detail carefully, you’ll be able to recognize not only the common qualities that birds of the same species share, but also the subtle differences between individuals. In our yard, “Friar Tuck” is the male cardinal with a black bald spot on its head; “Chuckadee” is the fattest chickadee in the neighborhood flock; and “H2” is the smallest hummer (a little ruby-throated hummingbird).

Be a behaviorist

“There’s a crow outside acting strangely,” my wife reported one morning. The glossy black bird was pecking repeatedly into an anthill in our yard. Then it would stop, spread its wings and squat atop the disturbed colony as hundreds of ants crawled over it. Using its beak, it seemed to be pressing the insects into its feathers. Every few minutes it would repeat the process, pecking into the colony to roil more ants to swarm onto its body.

I’d heard of the behavior, known as anting, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it. Crows, jays, thrushes and various other birds practice it in some form. Ornithologists theorize that the formic acid released by angry, biting ants conditions feathers, discourages parasites, soothes itchy skin – and just generally feels good to birds.

Once you start asking “What is that bird doing?” instead of “What kind is it?” you’ll discover all sorts of avian behaviors. Here are a few more to look for:

Preening. Watch for a bird fluffing its feathers and then combing them repeatedly with its bill. In the process, the bird also spreads a moisturizing oil from a gland near its tail. Preening keeps a bird’s feathers properly aligned and conditioned.

Hawking. Some birds hunt for meals by perching on a branch, scanning for airborne insects, flying out to grab a bite, and then returning to the branch to wait for another victim. Keep an eye out for hawking hummingbirds, bluebirds, flycatchers and jays.

Bill sweeping. You’ve seen birds bill-sweeping at your feeders, brushing away the seeds they don’t like to get at the ones they favor. Ground-foraging birds such as thrashers and towhees bill-sweep the forest floor, moving aside leaves to get at the bugs below.

Caching. Nuthatches, chickadees and titmice aren’t gobbling up all that seed they snatch from your feeders. Watch carefully, and you’ll see them stuffing the seeds – as well as insects – into tree crevices and beneath bark for future meals. In fall, a single chickadee may stash away several thousand individual tidbits for winter survival.

Mobbing. If you’ve ever noticed a flock of birds raising a noisy ruckus – perhaps crows chasing a hawk, or titmice and chickadees scolding a squirrel or cat – you’ve witnessed mobbing. It usually starts with just one bird raising an alarm, which draws in more birds to see what’s going on and to add their voices to the cacophony. Mobbing is a bird version of a neighborhood watch.

Scratching the surface. Well, many birds do that, too, to get at food, but here I’m talking about the bare beginning I’ve made of describing bird behaviors and techniques for watching them. Every bird action is a behavior of some sort – the more you watch, the more you learn and enjoy.

Terry Krautwurst often puts down his binoculars to write nature articles from his home in the mountains of western North Carolina.


Check out these Web sites to listen in on your feathered friends.

Kissing for Birds

If you’re outdoors bird-watching, but no birds are perched within view, try drawing them in by kissing and spishing: techniques that mimic alarm calls and trigger a mobbing response.

Make a loose fist and hold it up to your mouth so that your thumb and curled-up index finger are facing you. Put your lips together, press them to the fleshy part of your hand between your thumb and index finger, and make a loud, lip-smacking, squeaky kiss noise. Wait a few moments, then do it again, and again. Experiment. Try a series of short, high-pitched kisses. Or a combination of long and short, or loud and soft, squeaks.

Spishing is even easier and often brings in more birds. Just make a long, loud, drawn-out spishhhh sound three or four times in a row. You’ve got it right if the call makes a shushing noise (as though you were saying shhhhhhh) but with an extra spin front. Or try just pishhhh. Do it repeatedly, in a steady rhythm – and don’t be shy about it. Good, loud, energetic kissing, spishing and pishing can attract all sorts of woodland and backyard birds, including chickadees, nuthatches, jays, titmice, sparrows, catbirds, wrens, warblers and even woodpeckers.