The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Birding

All the rage for good reason — here’s why Canadians are so into 'birdwatching'.

All the rage for good reason — here’s why Canadians are so into 'birdwatching'

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

"Birds are magic," says Jody Allair, biologist and director of citizen science and community engagement for Bird Studies Canada. "That is why birding is one of the most popular recreational activities in the world." According to the Canadian Nature Survey, nearly a fifth of Canadians go birding, and they spend a lot of time at it (133 days per year on average).

Part of the reason that birding (the term "birdwatching" is felt to be a bit belittling in the community) is so widespread is that it appeals to so many different passions. It can be a treasure hunt for exotic species, an excuse for a stroll, an opportunity for photography, or a chance to contribute to science and conservation. Different birders have different motivations. But for many, it's more than a "pastime", it's a way of seeing the world. 

Birders trade stories about their "spark bird" — the single bird that triggers a lifelong interest.

When Allair was sixteen, he spotted an orange and blue bird from a car window on the way to a hockey game at a friend's house. When he arrived, Allair's mind was much more on the bird he'd just seen than on hockey, and it happened that his friend's mother had left a bird field guide sitting out. He dug in. When he found the bird he'd just spotted (an American Kestrel) Allair says, "All of the synapses in my brain started firing. It was incredibly gratifying. To see a cool bird and to identify it and to realize that there might be a whole world of them that you don't know about can be transformative." 

Allair’s spark bird: the American Kestrel (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Of the many ways to connect to the ineffable order of the natural world, birding is one of the most accessible. You don't really need much equipment, and you don't need to travel far. There are good spots for birding everywhere in Canada, even in the big cities. If you put up some feeders in your own backyard, they will come to you. Birding communities are famously welcoming. Every mid- to large-sized town in Canada has (at least) one that would be happy to introduce you to their favourite activity. 


While human beings have always observed birds with interest, modern systematic birding with its links to conservation and science developed in the late 19th century. Societies such as the Audubon Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were founded in this period to protect birds from mass killing by hunters. These societies grew in popularity and connected networks of bird enthusiasts.

On Christmas day, 1900, the first Christmas Bird Count was organized by Frank M. Chapman of the Audubon Society, in which birders across the continent would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them. Canadians Fannie Jones and William H. Moore provided counts for Toronto, ON, and Scotch Lake in New Brunswick. This tradition has grown into a major wildlife census providing essential scientific data. Every year tens of thousands of volunteers participate throughout the Americas.

New technology has also given birding a major boost in recent years. Digital photography and online communities have both led to growth in interest in birding, especially among young people. Allair told me that when he became interested in birding, he knew every birder his age in his area. Now he leads camps and tours full of enthusiastic young people. Also, bird Instagram is wild. Here are some of the top accounts to get you started.

What you need to know to get started

"You are not alone" is the first thing Allair wants budding birders to know. All mid-to-large towns in Canada have a birding group or naturalist club. "There is a community waiting for you, and they are always welcoming."

You can get involved without doing hardly any up-front research. "You don't need to know all the species, you don't need to study your books or apps. That can come later." Allair advises just getting started quickly and promises that you'll learn quickly as you go. "Read the introduction to your field guide and get out there and then start trying to identify the different birds."

Not sure how to identify birds? There are books and apps to help you, not to mention more experienced birders. Look not only at the colour of birds' plumage, but their behaviour — is it soaring around? Perching still? — and size. Allair recommends trying the Merlin Bird ID App which will walk you step-by-step through the identification process. And none of this has to be too technical. Does it look like Gonzo from The Muppets with the eyes of Game of Thrones' Night King? Double-crested Cormorant, says Allair. 

Before you get out there, you should also read through the Birding code of ethics to make sure you don't inadvertently do anything to harm birds or humans.

What you need to have to get started

One of the great things about birding is that you don't need much in the way of gear. The most important piece of equipment is a pair of binoculars. Allair recommends getting the best you can afford but finding an old used pair is a great way to get started. There are two numbers to pay attention to when you buy binoculars: magnification and field of view. Allair recommends 8 x 40 (7 x 30 is good for children) which provides a good balance of both qualities. Too much magnification at the expense of field of view will actually make spotting birds harder because you won't be able to see as much. 

A field guide or phone app can also be really helpful. There are plenty of free apps and guides detailing the birds found in your area are easy to find at the library. Allair recommends the Merlin Bird ID app and the Sibley Guide to Birds.

Bring a field journal or notebook to record what you see. This will help when you're trying to identify them. If you're artistically inclined, birds make great subjects and sketching birds is a great way to learn to identify them. If you're a photographer, it will certainly be worth bringing your camera.

Extra gear can improve your experience, says Allair, but not having it should absolutely not stop you from getting started. "You don't need money, you don't need a lot of stuff. You can just go outside and get a book from a library. Round up an old used pair of binoculars and get out there."

What you need to do

Canada is home to some renowned birding spots, such as Point Pelee National Park and Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve. But you don't need to travel across the country. According to Allair, "there are great birding spots all around you, so just get outside." This is true even in big cities such as Toronto and Montreal. If you want ideas on where to start, searching for "birding near me" will also point you in the right direction. Allair also recommends the "explore" function on eBird Canada, which lets you find hotspots near you and tells you what species to look out for. 

In fact, you can enjoy this pastime from your own home. It's pretty easy to set up a few feeders to bring all the birds to your yard. However, before you lure them in, check out this guide to how to create a bird-friendly environment in your own backyard. Hint: no cats. 

It's possible to use audio playback devices to lure birds to you, but its use is controversial as many believe it has a negative impact on birds, and it is forbidden in many parks and refuges. Check out this article for guidelines on the ethical use of playback. 

If you want to get involved with citizen science, Bird Studies Canada organizes Christmas bird counts, feeder watches, and other opportunities to put your birding in the service of science and conservation. You can also post your sightings to eBird, the world's largest biodiversity-based worldwide citizen science project.

Top tips

In addition to working as a biologist and director for Bird Studies Canada, Allair has introduced thousands to the activity through youth camps and by leading birding tours with Eagle Eye Tours. These are his top tips for getting started in birding. 

  • Find your people: Birders and naturalists are a welcoming bunch and have plenty to teach you. Allair recommends connecting with your local birding or naturalist club.

  • Be quiet: Too much noise can frighten birds. 

  • Follow a calling bird: Not only do birds of a feather flock together, but birds of different feathers do too. Following a single calling bird can lead you to a mixed flock. 

  • Birding is different things to different people: Travelling to remote locales, feeding the birds in your backyard, or using birding as an excuse for a walk in the park are all legitimate forms of birding. Find a way that works for you and enjoy it. 

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.