Getting Started: Learning How to Watch Birds


As with any skill, there’s a certain element to “learning how to learn” to observe birds. You’ll see what I mean if you invest time in this new hobby. You start to learn what marks to look for and where to look, or how to listen. You pick up how to watch and anticipate movements, and what’s an important feature to try to gather information. Learning how to learn bird song was especially a notable process for me, because I’m not a natural “by ear” learner, and I’d venture to say most aren’t. Those with musical backgrounds might have more developed skills in this arena, but this is where the concept of “meta-learning” really stuck out to me as I tried to learn more about birds. I not only memorized songs (often via mnemonics), but eventually I learned how to listen.

Different Styles

To follow up on that, there are different learning styles that resonate with different people, so I’d highly recommend you try to learn more about “how you learn” as you think about how to approach this new skill, and it’s not just visual vs. verbal! There are 7 styles that also interact. The most commonly referenced way to learn often involves getting a field guide, but that’s not the best strategy for everyone. Here are my thoughts in relation to the learning styles, though for anyone it might be best to try several of these strategies in tandem!

  • Visual (most common, and thus this strategy is most commonly referenced): Get a quality field guide
  • Aural (consider yourself lucky! you’re well-suited to learning bird songs): Check out an audio guide to learning how to listen to birds
  • Verbal: Go out on a local field trip led by an expert
  • Physical: Look for animal rehab centers or natural areas in your area that offer demonstrations that will allow you to see birds up close. It will be a rewarding experience if you’re able to attend an event where live birds are captured for research, that you can see in the hand before they’re released!
    • This one is a little harder to give general advice on, because only certain places do this, and often only certain times of the year. Start by searching for bird observatories in your area, and keep up with event calendars for nearby natural areas that, e.g., have welcome centers and related organizations.
  • Logical: consider first learning about birds (e.g. taxonomy) and how the topological characteristics follow
    • Certain field guides are organized by taxonomy (though schemes differ). It may help you to understand how birds are classified, along with perhaps theories of how they evolved to those places, and thus what characteristics belong to each to give you a base of information to which you can attach bird species IDs.
  • Social: join a local bird club
    • Most bird organizations have a social media presence, so start by searching for your state’s bird club online and follow along through posts for opportunities to get involved in the community!
  • Solitary: spend some quiet time outdoors looking and listening (not much more explanation needed!)

These learning styles can occur in tandem; for example, if you’re a verbal learner, you may well be a social learner as well. So, consider which strategies most appeal to you and get out there observing birds! It’s easy and fun to get started!

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