What is Bird Watching?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Bird watching, also called birding, is a recreational pastime that involves observing wild birds in their native habitat. People at all levels of fitness and ornithological knowledge can be birders, and many regions have thriving societies that sponsor trips and educational lectures. There are a number of reasons to participate in this activity, but most birders say that they simply enjoy the opportunity to go outside, learn about nature, and spend time with people who have like interests.

A man bird watching with binoculars.
A man bird watching with binoculars.

Humans have been identifying and observing birds for centuries in an attempt to become more knowledgeable about the natural world. Modern birders restrict their identifications to photographs and drawings, but in former centuries, birders also shot and mounted the birds that they identified in the wild. One of the most famous bird watchers, John Jacob Audubon, killed hundreds of birds, including many new species, and brought them back to life in vivid and unique drawings which were published in 1840 to great public acclaim.

Local Audubon Society chapters aim to educate the public about birds.
Local Audubon Society chapters aim to educate the public about birds.

In honor of Audubon, and in recognition of the immense contribution he made to the identification and description of American bird species, the Audubon Society was founded in the early 1900s. It helps to preserve bird species, educate the public about birds, and further scientific advancement in the field or ornithology. Today, the Audubon Society has many active local chapters which host regular birding trips, and plays a crucial role in conservation of habitat for threatened and endangered species.

Two birds in a backyard.
Two birds in a backyard.

On a bird watching trip, the birders will typically carry birding binoculars and bird guides to assist with spotting and identifying species. Although many birders are very knowledgeable, a bird guide confirms an identification, and assists birders who are traveling in unfamiliar territory. Many birders also carry a life list, a document that allows them to keep track of every bird they have ever spotted. Other equipment typically includes heavy boots for dealing with varied territory and layered clothing to cope with changeable weather.

A person holding a bird.
A person holding a bird.

Many locally based bird watching groups welcome new members, and love educating people new to ornithology. People who are interested in taking up this activity can contact a local chapter to get more information about it, and established birders can incorporate the pastime into their trips and vacations by getting in touch with bird groups at their destinations. Some travel agencies also offer bird watching trips, targeted at people who are interested in exploring nature and acquiring new species for their life lists.

People sometimes bird watch in groups.
People sometimes bird watch in groups.
Birds of prey are popular with bird watchers.
Birds of prey are popular with bird watchers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@seag47 – I was very excited to go on a birding trail by the ocean in Florida. I couldn't wait to see all the exotic birds, and I had my camera ready.

I was surprised when we pulled up to the sandy parking lot and saw a sign saying that we should wear mosquito repellent. I didn't expect mosquitoes by the sea, so I didn't have any, but we decided to walk the trail anyway.

The trail was basically through a jungle of palm trees and bushes. After about two minutes on it, we had received so many mosquito bites that we had to return to the car. It was unbearable!

I was disappointed that I didn't get to see any herons or gulls on the trail. I would just like to tell you that if you get the chance to go, wear mosquito repellent and long sleeves and pants if possible. It wouldn't hurt to wear a mosquito net on your head, either.


I have always been fascinated by seagulls, pelicans, and other sea birds. I think it would be so fun to go on a birding trail near the ocean.

Has anyone here ever been on such a trail? Did you see a lot of interesting birds, or were they hard to find?


I had no idea that bird watching and identification was so sophisticated! I just thought that bird watchers were literally people who watched birds and nothing more.

I didn't know anything about a life list or the Audubon Society. There is a much greater community of bird watchers out there than I ever realized. They are more than people with binoculars and time to kill.


I didn't become interested in bird watching until I spent time with my parents when they were in a retirement home.

For many people in this home, bird watching is a part of their everyday life. I found myself slowly becoming more interested in it. Before this I just never thought much about the birds that were around me.

There are birds in the city, but when you live close to a wooded area, you see a lot more birds than you do in a big city.

If a new bird came to a feeder that nobody recognized, everyone was getting out their bird books to see who could be the first one to identify it. This experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the birds, and ever since then I have found myself noticing them and watching them much more than I used to.


When my aunt and uncle told me they were going on a bird watching vacation I didn't think that sounded like much fun at all. I really didn't understand their fascination with birds.

The have a lot of bird watching gear and take this very seriously. It has made me more aware of the birds around me, but I don't think this is something I would ever plan my vacations around.


@bagley79-- I don't know too many young people who are very interested in taking up bird watching as a hobby. I belong to a bird watching group and I think the average age is probably around 45 years old.

When someone under 40 joins the group, this is considered a young person! This is something I hope to do more of when I retire. There are so many different birds in other parts of the world that I would love to see.

I have started a life list which isn't very long compared to other people I know. The list of birds I want to see in person is much longer than the list of birds I have already seen is.


My grandma was an avid bird watcher, and she passed on to me some of her bird books. One of them is a bird watching field guide that has been really helpful in identifying birds in my area.

My grandma could identify a bird without even seeing it, by their song. As a grew older I became more interested in watching and identifying birds. When I was younger I thought that bird watching was kind of a boring hobby, but now I have come to enjoy it.


Another person who contributed to ornithology was Roger T Peterson. He published a book, an identification guide, in early 1930's that was geared toward general population.

Not only were selected few being interested in birding, such as scholars, but people from diverse backgrounds got involved in birdwatching.

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