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How to Start Birdwatching in Your City

As the pandemic stretches on, there's renewed interest in connecting with nature. Experts share advice on finding some feathered friends.

By Carina Woudenberg
Apr 13, 2021 1:10 PMApr 15, 2021 9:17 PM
bluejay - shutterstock
A bluejay lands on a backyard deck. (Credit: Tony Quinn/Shutterstock)


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Continued pandemic-spurred restrictions on indoor activities coupled with longer, warmer days in the northern hemisphere beckon us outside. And if you can't safely gather with other humans, why not spend that time observing the wildlife around you?

In fact, more than a year of limited contact with friends and family has brought us closer to the natural world and birdwatching is one pastime rising in popularity these days.

The National Audubon Society, a non-profit focused on protecting birds through advocacy and education, reports nearly twice as many people downloaded the Audubon Bird Guide App in March 2020 compared to the previous March. These users also posted more than double the number of bird sightings on the app from June to December of 2020 compared to those same months in 2019.

If you’re new to the birdwatching game and aren’t sure where to start, don’t fret. We spoke to birders around the world for some tips. City dwellers without backyards can get in on the fun too.

“You can start birding anywhere there are birds!” says Audubon Mid-Atlantic program associate Robin Irizarry. “Birds are some of the most accessible wildlife due to their ability to fly and turn up virtually anywhere.”

What kind of bird seed should I use?

If you’re looking to attract the widest variety of birds, experts agree black sunflower seeds are your best bet. However, you can also customize your offerings in the hopes of seeking out particular species. For example, robins, greenfinches and blue tits are all big fans of peanuts, says Clive Harris, a birder based just outside of London. Harris created the DIY Garden website where he and other birdwatchers share tips for attracting birds to your yard.

For the most bird-watching bang for your buck, Harris recommends comparing feeding notes with other bird-loving neighbors.

“Find out what they are using and purchase something different,” he said. “This way, you'll attract a variety of birds to your home.”

Denver, Colorado resident  and avid birder Sarah Stromsdorfer recommends splurging on a higher quality bird seed that isn't just shells and filler.

“If you are able to find a 'mess-free' seed, you will save so much time sweeping shells and the birds will have a lot more nutrition with shell-less seeds,” she says. “You will also attract many more bird types with higher quality seed.”

To detract squirrels, Stromsdorfer recommends using safflower seeds which taste bitter to the enterprising seed snatcher.

Hummingbird feeders and blocks of suet are another way to go, offers Irizarry. He recommends making your own hummingbird food with a mix of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. “Avoid the commonly marketed red liquids,” he adds. 

What type of bird feeder is best?

Stromsdorfer urges fellow birders to avoid hit and miss quality online and instead check out their local bird shops for a good squirrel-proof feeder. “Most feeders are cheaply made, low quality and do not deter the strong-willed squirrels,” she said. Stromsdorfer personally uses the “Eliminator Squirrel-Proof Feeder” which she purchased at a local shop.

Nottinghamshire, England resident Shaun Bird is a fan of the 22 centimeter Harrison's Flip Top Mealworm Feeder which attracted a local robin to his yard — until spring came and the robin found more food in the neighboring parkland.

Despite his last name, Bird is relatively new to birdwatching but has gained interest in the hobby since launching the website BirdfeederExpert.com

Where should you place your bird feeder?

“Where you can see it the best!” says San Antonio, Texas resident Haeley Giambalvo. Giambalvo runs the website NativeBackyards.com, which aims to help people attract more songbirds and pollinators to their yards with native plants. She says by keeping the feeder in view you will start to recognize the same birds returning to your buffet. “I swear my birds stop by for breakfast, lunch and dinner!” she said.

However, one should also be mindful of the proximity to predators. “Do not place your feeder near anything that a cat, squirrel, or other predator can hide on,” says New South Wales, Austraila resident Chris Laan. “This means no nearby branches or sturdy shrubs.”

Irizarry says cats can be a real problem when it comes to birds with an estimated 2.4 billion killed each year in the United States.

“Even a well-fed cat who’s only let out occasionally can potentially catch and kill birds,” he said. “Keep cats indoors, and if you feel your cat is missing out on sunshine and play, consider getting them used to walking on a leash or building an outdoor enclosure for them to hang out in.”

What if you don't have a backyard?

Balconies can be prime spots for the hummingbird and suet feeders mentioned earlier. Irizarry adds that by keeping these within three feet of a window, a bird is likely to slow down its momentum enough so it won't crash into the glass — a scenario responsible for millions of birds deaths each year. As an added precaution, it's also a good idea to add bird-saving window decals to the outside of the window to highlight the otherwise invisible barrier.

No balcony? No problem. Irizarry says a bird feeder isn't necessary to enjoy the birds.

“Sometimes all you need to do is look up at the sky to notice them,” he said. “Many people are amazed when they find out that not only is seeing something like a bald eagle flying over the city a possibility (but) it's actually becoming a pretty regular occurrence as populations rebound in response to decades of wildlife protection policies and habitat restoration.”

What is the best way to identify bird species?

Irizarry suggests checking out the Audubon’s Birds of North America Field Guides, Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds.

“Find one that feels most helpful to you for the region where you’ll be birding and keep it handy,” he said.

Gerallt Hywel, the founder and editor of a website titled Wild Bird World says to invest in a good pair of binoculars and start taking notes. Color, size, number of birds flying together, etc. is all pertinent information.

“The big thing is just putting in the time and doing as much of it as you can,” he said. “Wake up early, keep a close eye, take detailed notes, and put in the time. You’ll get more experienced, recognize things you didn’t previously and just learn on the fly.”

“Don't get discouraged if you can't easily accomplish any sightings at the beginning,” said birder and New York City resident Sandeep Kumar Aggarwal. “It will always take some time and patience for the birds to feel comfortable enough to show themselves.”

And when you're ready, there can be a human element as well.

“Birdwatching is a great socially distanced activity,” Irizarry said. “Once Covid limitations begin to ease, many groups will be eager to get back into their routine of hosting guided group bird walks. These are a great way to build your skills and make new friends along the way.” 

Read more:

#BlackInNature: How Young Scientists are Pushing for Equality

Black Birders Week helped show the world that Black scientists exist in the great outdoors. Now participants hope to keep the conversation going.

Did COVID-19 Heal Nature?

A global shutdown in 2020 seemed to turn over city streets (and, supposedly, canals) to wildlife. Ecologists saw something deeper.

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