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The Beginners Guide to Backyard Birding: How to Get Started and The Things You Need

A Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) perches on a old stump
Winter Mockingbird

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A house sparrow  (Passer domesticus) perched on a limb during a snow fall.
Snow Day Sparrow

Are you ready to start your backyard birding adventure? It’s not complicated. It’s quite simple. First, I’m going to tell you the easiest way to get started. Then, we will look at some of the tools you might want to use to make your backyard birding adventure easier and more rewarding. Think of backyard birding as a never-ending adventure and the gift that keeps on giving.

Whether you live on 100 acres in the middle of nowhere or you live in a tiny apartment in a big city, you can become a backyard birder. All you need is the knowledge of the basic wants and needs of the birds in your area. Just like in the movie, Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come.

I’ve said this a hundred times, and I will say it again. I am not an expert on this subject but I’ve had some success. One of the reasons I started this series is so I can help you be successful at bringing birds to your little piece of the world. Success at backyard birding isn’t measured by the number of birds you attract but by the amount of joy, excitement, and peace it brings you. I only hope that it brings you as much happiness as it has brought me. Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

Unless you live in a box with no windows, you can get into backyard birding. You only need one single item to start down the road to your birding success. Do you know what that one thing is? Are you sitting down? The ONLY thing you need is…drumroll please…birdseed! Inexpensive, bought at Walmart, bird seed. Simple, isn’t it? You don’t need top-of-the-line premium birdseed or expensive feeders. Find yourself a window that you can look out of, go outside, and sprinkle the seed around. It is that easy. Eventually, birds will find it and as long as you keep throwing seeds out, they will come.

That is the least expensive and easiest way to get started. But most people want more birds. Let's look at some tools that will increase your odds and promote the return of your feathered guests. I’m going to have a separate post for each topic below with more details. For now, let’s just touch on the basics.

Birdseed: The key here is research. Learn what species of birds frequent your area or the ones you want to attract. Then figure out what seed they prefer and put it out in the appropriate feeder. This list might change as the seasons change so make sure you always have a variety of seeds. Most people think that all birdseed is the same. Tell that to your birds. The seed that attracts the widest variety of birds, and is a must for most backyard birders, is black oil sunflower seeds. As a rule, mixtures that contain red millet, oats, and other “fillers” are not attractive to most birds and can lead to a lot of waste. Let’s stay away from them.

Feeders: There are millions of feeders out there and for the most part, they all work. Don’t feel like you need the best or the most expensive. Figure out what birdseed you want to use and then get a feeder that works best for that type of seed. Again, we will learn more about each type of feeder and how they can improve your backyard birding experience in the near future.

Water feature: A water feature is not a must. However, if you want happy birds, make sure you have some kind of water source. It can be as simple as a shallow dish filled with fresh water or as complex as a large in-ground pond with a waterfall. A common pedestal birdbath is a popular

option. It takes up little space, it’s low maintenance and most birds like them. I like to have some kind of circulating or moving water. Birds seem to be attracted to it more because moving water, in general, means freshwater. But there are ways around that. Before I built my fountain, I used a standard cement birdbath. I purchased a "Water Wiggler” to go in it. It worked great…until the dogs ate it! Later on, I will post a DIY fountain that is easy and inexpensive to make.

A Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) perches on a small dead stump
Carolina Wren

Ok, now that you know what essential items are needed to get started in this backyard birding adventure. Let’s talk about some items that are not essential but will enhance your backyard birding experience.

Binoculars: If you’ve ever looked for binoculars you’ve probably noticed that the model is always followed by two numbers. The first number is the magnification (or power), and the second number is the diameter of their lenses. For example, 10×42 binoculars will have 10x magnification and 42 mm lenses. Binoculars with large lenses (42mm) can gather more light which produces brighter images. They work better in low-light settings such as dawn, dusk, fog, rain, etc. Compact binoculars (32mm) have smaller lenses that gather less light. They are much lighter and more portable. As a backyard birder, I recommend something in the 8 to 10-power range. Tracy, being the bird watcher, has two different kinds, the Nikon Aculon 10 x 25 and the Leupold Yosemite 6 x 30. She leans toward the Nikon because of its power and because they are small, light, and easy to carry.

Birding Guides: I recommend getting the best field guide you can find for identifying the birds in your state. I personally like one that has good images. I am visual so the more pictures the better. However, there are several really good apps you can download to your phone or tablet that will help you if you’re out in the field and don’t want to carry a book with you. Merlin Bird ID by Cornell (Free) and iBird Pro. Both have helped me identify many birds.

Notebook: Think of a notebook as your bird journal. Keep a running list of the birds you see and the date you saw them. It's always fun to be able to add a new bird to the list.

Camera/Phone: This one is self-explanatory. If you have your apps downloaded, you can use your phone as your Birding guide or take pictures of a bird you want to identify later. You can always make a book with all the different types of birds you have seen with dates, times, and images. It’s always nice to have proof you saw that elusive bird.

Native Landscaping: This one is near and dear to my heart. I have become a believer in the “Go Native” movement. It’s so important, I’m going to do a separate post just on going native. I started planting Texas native plants in my backyard about 5 years ago. Last year I had nine new species of birds visit my yard. NINE! I’m hoping for more new visitors this year. Native plants attract native bugs, native bugs attract native birds. It is that simple. Paired with a water feature, success is almost guaranteed.

A lot of these subjects we will cover later down the road in separate blog posts. Remember, do a little research. Learn about the birds in your area and what they prefer. With some patience and a little work, you can be attracting and inviting, a lot more birds into your piece of the world in no time!

A American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  sits on a small twig.
Winter Goldfinch

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Until next time, keep the sun behind you and the birds in view.


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