Birding Basics

This page contains all of the basic information needed to get you started bird watching. The topics covered on this page range from the most common species that you will likely encounter in the field to how to ID a bird.

Getting Started-

Before you get started trying to see and/or attract birds to your yard, you will first need to fulfill a few basic requirements. The first of which is getting a good field guide.


How to choose a field guide

   A field guide is probably the most important things a birder can have with him on a birdwatching expedition, after binoculars. A good field guide is terribly important becuase nothing is harder than seeing a bird that you don't recognize and then having to try and remember its physical features the entire rest of the trip until you get home. If you have gone on trips without a field guide and this has happened to you, you will know that it is much easier to look up the bird on the spot while the physical characteristics are still fresh in your mind.

   The main key to choosing a field guide is choosing the field guide that is right for you. While some field guides, such as the Peterson Field Guide to Birds, have become wildly popular, this guide is not right for everyone. Each birdwatcher has his own preferences on field guides. Personally, I prefer photos of the species instead of paintings, but others may prefer paintings over photos. So the best thing to look for in a field guide is one that you like.

   The next most important thing to look for is the species included in the book. While some field guides cover only birds in certain regions of the US, most do not. An ordinary field guide covers many species, both from the eastern and western halves of the country. However, when choosing a field guide be sure that it includes birds in your area of the country. You wouldn't have a very good field guide if it is for the wrong part of the country. The most helpful field guide in the country would be the worst in the world if it didn't include birds for your region.

   After checking the range covered by the field guide, check to see what species are covered in the guide. A good field guide should list upwards of 100 species at least. This ensures that not only are you purchasing a field guide that will include common species that you will easily recognize without the aid of a guide, but it will also include a large number of species that you do not know at first sight. The third main key to a good field guide is that it must include many species which you do not recognize easily on your own. This is very important because what good does a field guide that lists 50 species do you if you can easily recognize 30 of those 50? Not very much good at all.

   Look at what information is included with each species. Most larger field guides (200> species) include little information for each species so that they can fit the maximum number of species in the guide. Usually, however, smaller guides (<200 species) include more information with each species. One important point to examine when considering a field guide is male/female differentiation photos. In most (but not all) bird species, the male and female birds look quite different. Does the field guide that you are considering include photos of both the male and female of each species? This is important because some field guide include photos of just the male or just the female. This isn't helpful if you see a male Baltimore Oriole but you can't identify it in your guide because just a female is pictured in the guide.

   The 'big guides' usually try to squeeze by with the mare minimum ammount of info so, as stated before, they can fit the maximum ammount of birds into their book. While extra information is handy, it isn't a must. There are a few "musts" to look for, though. There are two main points that every field guide should contain for general birding purposes (picture ID not included, because it wouldn't be a field guide.without those!). The first is a range map. This will help you decide if you did see the bird you thought you saw, because in birding, rage in everything. While a bird might live in most of your state, it may not live in all of it. The second is a size indicator. If you see a dinky yellow bird, you can rule out the other bird species you may be considering because it is larger than the bird you saw. Make sure the guide is in either English or metric, depending on what you desire.

   Don't be fooled by a name! Even though a highly trusted name in birding (ie. Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the National Audubon Society) is on the book, do not think that it will be a great field guide. I once had the opportunity to look at a field guide of a friends. I was naturally impressed because of the name on the book, and I was not dissapointed as I flipped through the book and looked at the high-quality photos and the large number of information listed with each species. My enthusiasm quickly deteriorated when I noticed a major flaw... The photo ID for the White-Crowned Sparrow showed a juvenile bird, which didn't have a white crown! I was very dissapointed. The big-time birding organization that published this guide should have known better than to publish a photo of a juvenile for an adult. I know that it is hard for a beginning birder to pick out flaws like this, but it is important to try.

   Summing it up-

   The main points to look for in a good field guide are:

  • It includes birds in your region.
  • It includes >100 species.
  • Includes good photo ID's of both the male and female bird.
  • It includes at least a range map and size indicators for species information.
  • It is a field guide that you like.

   If you follow this guide and all of the points above have been succesfully met, then chances are good that you will get a good field guide that will work for you.




Choosing binoculars

   Now you have a good field guide, but what comes next? The answer is very simple: binoculars. Every good birdwatcher knows the importance of a high-quality pair of binoculars. That close-up look at the Yellow-Warbler perched 40 feet infront of you is so much more amazing than the view you would ordinarily have without them. The worth of a quality pair of binoculars is also magnified when you are trying to ID that bird that you don't recognize. Instead of a distant view of the mystery bird, why not get a close-up view? Chances are you will notice some details that will aid you later in the identification process that you wouldn't have noticed without your binoculars. The question is, what do you need to look for in a good pair of binoculars? Just like with a field guide, there are certain features you should look for with any pair of binoculars that you are considering purchasing.

   When choosing a pair of binoculars, the first thing you should look for is the level of zoom. Most binoculars display the zoom and lens width on the focus wheel. These two numbers will be displayed in a manner like his: 10x25. Now what do these numbers mean? The first number is the magnification level, so a pair of binoculars with this pair of numbers would have a 10 times zoom level. I would reccomend getting at least a pair of 8x zoom binoculars. Remember, the higher the number the more the zoom.

   The next most important thing to look for is the lens width. This is the width of the lens at the back side of the binoculars. Using the pair of example numbers above, the lens width would be the second number. Be sure to note that lens width is always listed in millimeters. Thus, the lens width would be 25 millimeters. You may be asking, "Why is lens width important?". The answer is simple. The larger the width of the lens, the more light gets through, which results in a brighter image. That is why for birdwatching a large lens width is important. When comparing a pair of binoculars with a 25mm lens to a 50mm lens, the amazing is difference. When testing the two pairs at dusk, the 25mm piar is so dark that it is almost no good. The pair with the 50mm lenses, however, boast a much brighter image, so that you can see quite well at dusk.

   So, what is the 'best' zoom level and lens diameter? The answer to that question can only be answered by you. I would reccommend no less than 10x zoom, and I personally prefer a larger lens diameter for brighter images, but those are only my personal opinions. It is best to try out multiple types of binoculars before purchasing them to see what specifications are best for you. Remember to try out not only different zoom levels and lens diameters, but also be sure to try out different brands. Many outdoor gear stores will let you try out binoculars before you make the final decision, which can be extremely helpful when investing in something that can be as pricey as binoculars can be.

   Last but definately not least is the image clarity. Look for a pair of binoculars with sharp images. No one wants a pair of binoculars with an unclear image. As a general rule of thumb, a more expensive pair of binoculars will be more clear than a less expensive one (although this isn't always true). Unless you test them before purchasing them, there is really no way of telling how clear they will be. Also be sure to buy a quality brand, not some off brand that you have never heard of.


   Summing it up-

   The main things to remember when shopping for binoculars are:

  • The zoom level is at least 8x.
  • The lens diameter is at least 25x.
  • Look for a quality brand.

   Not only do you need to keep the above items in mind when shopping for binoculars, but don't forget to try out different pairs at the store before you make the final decision. The period of trying out and comparing different pairs can be essential for finding the right pair of binoculars.




How to identify a bird

   Now that you are equipped with a field guide and binoculars, you need to learn the skills required to go about identifying the birds you find. While the task may seem pathetically easy since you have a book including photo ID's of over 100 bird species, the process actually isn't that simple. Let's say that you saw a small bird that was mostly gray above and white below with some gray streaks on the chest and a yellow patch on the side and rump. Does this sound like enough information to ID the bird? Actually, for a beginning birdwatcher this examples probably includes more information than he would probably gather on the birds outward appearance. He would more likely take a good look at the bird without trying to remember any specific details about the birds appearance, and hope to recognize a picture of the bird if he happened to come across it in his field guide. But the good news is, there is a much easier approach to identifying a mystery bird.

   Whenever an experienced birdwatcher comes across a bird that is unknown to them, they almost always automatically notice sevral physical as well as environmental and behavioral factors relating to the bird. The first thing you should quickly note is the birds size. Is the bird small like a sparrow or large like a blackbird? This can help you to eliminate many species which are strikingly similar to the one you saw. The bird in the example is about the size of a finch, so you can rule out all larger or smaller birds.

   After quickly noting the approximate size of the bird, take a look at the overall shape of the bird. Many times, by shape alone you can rule out similar species. Most birds in the same family are shaped basically the same way. After you get some practice you will be able to tell what family a bird is in just by looking at the shape of it. This can be a great time saver and make the task of identifying the bird much easier. For instance, if the bird is shaped like a finch then you can automatically rule out all other families of birds, which makes the process a whole lot easier. The bird in the example is shaped like a warbler, so you can eliminate all other bird families.

   Now that you have assessed the size and shape of the bird, it is finally time to look at the field marks. Field marks are basically just any markings on the bird that are prominent and easy to remember. On the bird in the example the most prominent field marks that you should note would be an overall gray back, white throat, a black-streaked breast, and a white belly. The bird also has bright yellow patches on the flanks and rump, and a short tail.  With those notes in mind, you can remove all birds of a different color from the possibilities list (plus birds with long tails).

   This next step is extremely helpful when deciding what family a bird belongs to. Take a look at the shape of the bill. Is it short and stout? Long and slender? Short and slender? Just this little piece of information can give you an entirely new way of looking at the species. With this information you can tell what the bird eats, and also aid in, as said before, deciding which family the bird belongs to. With the bird in the example, the bill would be short and slender, which tells us two things. First, the bird's diet consists mostly of insects, and second, this also supports the belief that the bird is in the warbler family, which brings us to the final steps of the identification process.

   Take a moment to look around you. What habitat is the bird in? At the edge of a forest, in an open grassland, or at the city park? This small piece of information can rule out many species which may appear similar otherwise, simply because they are not found in the same habitat as this bird was seen in. The example bird was found in the forest around dense undergowth. This further supports the belief that the bird is in the warbler family.

   Last but not least, if the bird is singing or calling, try to remember the song or calls so that when you have the bird narrowed down to just two or three species you can compare song and call recordings to help differentiate between the species you saw and the look-alikes. Often (but not always) the songs of birds vary greatly, even among birds in the same family. Oh, one last thing. If you haven't figured out what the example bird is yer, the answer is a female yellow-rumped warbler.


   Summing it up-

   The main points to look for when trying to ID a bird are:

  • Approximate size.
  • Overall shape of the bird.
  • Prominent field marks.
  • Shape of the bill.
  • Habitat
  • Song/Call

   If you keep these things in mind when looking at a bird you will need to identify later on, the actual identifying process will be much easier than it would without this information.

The Parts of a Bird-


   Digging deeper


Most Common Ohio Birds-

Now that you have the basic knowledge you need to identify a bird, a short list of Ohio's most common bird species has been compiled below. There is a photo ID for both the male and female of both species. This list will help you 'get off the ground' by helping you learn what the common birds of Ohio look like. The male of each species is pictured first, and the female second. If there is only one photo for a species, then the male and female of that species look alike.


House Sparrow

House Finch


American Goldfinch


Red-Winged Blackbird


Northern Cardinal


American Robin*


European Starling


American Crow


Mourning Dove


Rock Pigeon



*Though male and female American Robins are not identical, a photo for the female has been omitted because the only difference is the shade of red on the breast and belly feathers.


All bird photos above from the Wikimedia Commons


National Bird-

Did you know?

  • The Bald Eagle became the national bird on June 20th, 1782.
  • Many people, most notably Benjamin Franklin, thought that the Wild Turkey was a more fitting national bird.
  • The Bald Eagle only beat the Wild Turkey by one vote in the race for national bird.

Ohio's State Bird-

Did you know?

  • The Northern Cardinal was adopted as Ohio's state bird in 1933.
  • The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven states, but Ohio was the third state to adopt it as it's state bird.
  • While male cardinals are entirely bright red with a black mask, female cardinals lack the brilliant colors and are mostly a drab brown with some pink or red highlights on the wings, crest, and tail.

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