All the Gear You Need to Fill Your Backyard with Birds (and Learn Everything About Them)

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IT WAS THE surf scoter that first caught Molly Adams’ attention. Back in 2012, she was looking through an interactive exhibit at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, N.Y., where she worked as an environmental educator. The black seabird looked so odd to her—with a sloped bill that made it appear to be constantly, softly smiling—that she couldn’t imagine seeing one near her house. Yet a few weeks later, there it was.

Seeing the scoter in person ignited a fascination within Ms. Adams. “That was what really changed it for me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m sold. Show me more.’” She’d found what birders (not “bird watchers,” a more colloquial categorization that belies the intensity with which some pursue the creatures) call her “spark bird.” Before long, she formed the Feminist Bird Club, now an international organization with more than 20 chapters in North America and Europe.

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the American birder population as over 45 million people, down from 1990s and aughts figures. But the hobby exploded in popularity during the pandemic. While the economy was shrinking in late 2020, some manufacturers of bird seed and birding accessories were reporting year-over-year upticks in sales of around 50%.

Members of the Feminist Bird Club in New York City keeping watch at Bushwick Terminal Park last month.



Photo:

Molly Adams

After the boom, birding looks a bit different. The federal agency report from 2016 found that birders were mostly male (56%) and white (82%). But groups like the Feminist Bird Club, non-profit organizations like Birdability (which seeks to make birding more accessible, particularly to those with disabilities) and events like Black Birders Week, have carved out space in the community for all kinds of new birders, whether they’re willing to travel to see unique species or just want to know what’s chirping in their backyard.

If you’re interested in birding in your own outdoor space, ornithologist Kenn Kaufman says summer is a great time to get started. That’s because plenty of species summer in the U.S. And plenty of others will be migrating through until mid-October.

Start by setting up some combination of birdbaths, bird feeders and birdhouses in your backyard. When considering birdbaths, “it’s really good to have something that [incorporates] some kind of movement,” said Mr. Kaufman. Look for designs that can accommodate a waterfall, fountain or “wiggler,” a cutely named battery-powered agitator that floats in the water and creates ripples. Tube-based bird feeders you can hang from tree branches appeal to seed-eating species like chickadees and cardinals, especially if you fill the feeders with premium sunflower seeds, which have a high fat content. “If you don’t skimp on the food,” said ornithologist David Allen Sibley, “you’ll get a lot more birds and a lot more variety.” If you’re interested in seeing hummingbirds, you’ll need a specific type of feeder that holds sugar water.

It takes time to learn how to bird without these aids, to distinguish a robin from a chickadee from its call alone.

Birdhouses can also bring a number of species within sight. If a pair decides to build a nest in one, you might even get to see them bring food to hatchlings and watch fledglings learn to fly.

Once the birds begin to arrive, try identifying them. Many people start their journeys by looking for a guidebook to their region. Alvaro Jaramillo, an ornithologist who leads birding trips for his company Alvaro’s Adventures, admits this is a bit analog. But he said there’s nothing quite like spotting a species you don’t immediately recognize alight on a nearby branch then frantically paging through a book to try and identify it. For beginners, he recommended both the guides written by Mr. Kaufman and those by Mr. Sibley.

A red-wing blackbird squawks in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last April.



Photo:

Anna Kremer

Mr. Sibley often urges new birders to try Merlin, a free app developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that he said has gotten better since its 2014 launch. The app works like Shazam for birds—you record a call you hear and the app generates a list of the species that make it. “It’s like having an experienced birder sitting there with you,” said Mr. Sibley.

It takes time to learn how to bird without these aids, to distinguish a robin from a chickadee from its call alone. “For a beginning birder, the first 25 species that you identify are going to be the hardest,” said Mr. Sibley. But once you can recognize the birds near your home, it gets easier to spot characteristics that help you identify more.

A hawk rests on a branch at William G. Lunney Lake Farm County Park in Madison, Wisc.



Photo:

Jeff Galligan

Once you decide to start seeking birds beyond your backyard, a good pair of binoculars becomes crucial. Because binoculars can be hard to keep steady and in focus, advanced birders recommend testing a pair out at home before trying to rely on it in the wild. If someone in your group just spotted an oriole, you don’t want your inability to adjust a lens to stop you from getting a look yourself. You don’t always have to buy your own; many birding groups have spare pairs for newcomers to use.

As you get in deeper, you might wonder whether to invest in other, more advanced birding accessories, like specialized backpacks and infrared heat vision scopes. Many birders say that kind of gear, while helpful, isn’t necessary.

Isaiah Scott, 19, is a college student at Cornell University who started birding five years ago. He quickly fell in love with the activity and now leads birding walks in his hometown of Savannah, Ga. His advice for beginners? Once you’ve gotten some basic equipment, don’t worry too much about constantly upgrading it with the latest tech and building a viewing kit a secret agent would envy. “Just get out there and explore…Start building your relationship with birds.”

The Best Birding Gear & Accessories

Seven items to attract more birds and help you identify the ones you already have



Photo:

Sunnydaze Decor

1. SPLASH ZONE

Pros know to entice birds with water features, where the chirpers can get a drink or take a bath year-round. The deep basin of this handsome, hand-painted seafoam birdbath from Sunnydaze Decor lets you add a solar-powered fountain or a battery-powered wiggler that’ll keep the water moving. Plus, at almost 40 pounds, this ceramic tub is heavy enough to stay upright on windy days. $195, SunnydazeDecor.com



Photo:

Droll Yankees

2. TUBULAR SEED STEIN

To feed sparrows and finches, hang this Droll Yankees feeder up on a tree bough. It’s designed to let them eat from the bottom, so backyard birders can easily see how much seed is left. Worried about squirrels? Opt for a more expensive model with a guard that prevents them from doing mischief. $73, MoreBirds.com



Photo:

Uncredited

3. LONG LENSES

Experts suggest you try different binoculars at an outdoor outfitter store before you buy a pair, noting their weight and how they feel in your hands. No time to comparison shop? Many birders recommend the Celestron TrailSeeker ED 8×42, crafted by a company that has been making optics since 1973. $380, Celestron.com



Photo:

WHITEHORSE

4. SPARROW SHACK

Lots of birds use birdhouses to shelter their eggs when nesting. This Whitehorse birdhouse looks simple, but it features touches like a stainless steel guard at the opening to stop predators from getting inside. Install it on an isolated post, so that a threat can’t jump onto it from a nearby tree. $70, TeamWhitehorse.com



Photo:

Panasonic

5. SUPERZOOM SNAPPER

Birders use cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30, with its 24x zoom capabilities, to grab pictures and videos that they can scrutinize later. Try shooting a bird you’ve never seen before in flight. By revealing any markings on its outstretched wings, the resulting photo might help you identify your subject. Plus, photos are a clever tool to persuade pals to join you on your next outing. $498, Panasonic.com



Photo:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

6. A MAGICAL APP

Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin functions like Shazam for bird calls. The app will match any birdsong you record to a list of likely species. Though impressively accurate, the app’s not perfect. Training tip: Reference a guide to confirm that the birds Merlin identifies are ones that actually frequent your location. Free, AllAboutBirds.org

hummingbird feeder



Photo:

Aspects, Inc.

7. SIMPLE SYRUP SAUCER

Hummingbirds, which can be found in every state save Hawaii, won’t eat from just any feeder. They like to drink sugar water through tiny holes as their rapidly beating wings keep them steady. This saucer-like HummZinger feeder limits the number of insects that could sting the little birds as they’re sipping. Bonus: It’s easy to clean. $25, HummZinger.com

Birding Beyond the Backyard? Everyone’s Welcome

As the hobby becomes more inclusive, those with mobility issues have also found a community

FINDING FLOCKS On the lookout at a Birdability outing in Tuscon, Ariz.



Photo:

Freya McGregor

​​Virginia Rose has used a wheelchair for over 40 years. She grew to love birding anyway, navigating the paved, relatively flat paths of Richard Moya Park near her home in Austin, Texas. But as she got deeper into the hobby, she noticed many other trails were not so accommodating. Some featured long sections of dirt that became unnavigable if it ever rained. Others had sections that were too narrow for her wheelchair.

To help remedy the problem, Ms. Rose founded Birdability in 2018. The nonprofit organization, for which she now serves as president, seeks to improve the physical accessibility of birding trails and introduce others with their own challenges to the hobby. Its work has included publishing detailed guides about what makes a trail truly accessible and memos for expedition leaders on how to be more welcoming towards those with access needs.

One of the most valuable resources the group created is an interactive crowdsourced map of more than 1,000 birding locations around the world. Each pin on the map includes information about essential details like a trail’s surface material and whether its parking lot has “curb cuts,” which allow those using a mobility device to get from the road onto the sidewalk. Anyone can add to it using a ready-made checklist, which asks reviewers to provide details on a total of 19 different access considerations.

“It’s really helpful for a lot of people to know if it’s worth driving two hours if they’re not going to be able to do that trail anyway,” said the group’s coordinator, Freya McGregor.

The group has also compiled a list of adaptive birding equipment for people with accessibility challenges that includes camp chairs for those with chronic fatigue and plastic wheelchairs that don’t rot in the salty air you might encounter when beach birding.

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Did you take up birding during the pandemic? What has the experience been like? Join the conversation below.

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