A beginner’s guide to birding


No matter where you are in Canada—in a city, at the cottage, on the ocean or on the tundra—you can find birds.

If your knowledge of birds doesn’t extend much beyond those irritating city pigeons and you can’t tell a sparrow from a starling, here’s how to get a little closer to our feathered friends.

Getting ready

Bird-watching isn’t as gear-heavy as other outdoor past-times, but there are some key things you need. First of all, get a field guide appropriate to your area, and use it to familiarize yourself with key bird families—swallows, raptors, herons, and others—that you’re likely find close by. (Don’t try and memorize specific bird species just yet!)

If you’re feeling techy, there are a number of great birding apps available—just remember that some birding sites might not be great in terms of connectivity.

Binoculars are also important. If you’re serious about getting into birding, investing in a decent beginner’s pair is important. Top-of-the-line ‘nocs cost upwards of $1200, but you can get a good pair for between $250 and $300. This article from WildBirds has some handy binocular lingo to help you make a decision.

A camera and notebook are important for documenting your sightings (and for generating some Instagram envy among your friends).

Finally, make sure you have study boots (if you’re going to be hiking) and comfortable clothes, including a hat.

Find some friends

Go to the Audubon Society website, check out a local listserv, find a naturalists’ club close by or simply stop in to your local nature/outdoors store. You’ll find birding walks, birding lectures, and a ton of people more than happy to share their love of birding—which can sometimes border on the obsessive—with someone new.

Birding has a language unto itself, so don’t worry if you’re not sure what your new buddies are talking about when they say something like, “Yeah, I got one heck of a megatick during my last big day”? This list of birding jargon should help.

Figure out what you’d like to see

Use your field guide to make a list of common and not-so-common birds in your area, then check them off as you see them. Change habitats (move from the forest to open grassland, for example) to see different birds.

But beware: this is an addictive pastime. Birders who travel the world looking to see rare species (and there are quite a few of them) are known as “twitchers” and have a reputation for being, well, twitchy, especially when faced with the possibility of seeing a truly rare bird. 

Don’t be afraid to travel a little

Because of the sheer size of our landmass, Canada has some incredibly diverse birding sites. What you see at your cottage birdfeeder in the Haliburton Highlands will be completely different from the birds on Vancouver Island. Explore the areas close to home first (here’s a list of great spots in Ontario parks), then, if you’re really interested, look into taking a birding-focused trip somewhere unfamiliar.