‘I can see a bird. What is it?’: a beginners’ guide to backyard birding


Essential equipment: guide (book, app, website, or household member) to help identify birds, sense of humour.

Non-essential equipment: binoculars, notebook, sense of adventure.

How to do it: you just watch birds.

Bird-watching is for everyone, whether you’re on your own or with your significant other, family or friends. Neither special skills nor fancy equipment are required. There’s no need to have a degree in ornithology. And you certainly don’t have to dress up in a ghillie suit and tote a Swarovski spotting scope. I mean, you can if you want, but it’s not necessary. Especially if you’re watching birds through your kitchen window while doing the washing up.

In fact, you don’t even have to watch them. Listening to birds and learning to identify them by their songs is an excellent way of getting to know the species around your home.

I can see a bird. What is it?
Identifying birds is a matter of experience.

Some species are so distinct — brush turkeys, galahs, the rainbow lorikeet at the top of this page, for example — that it’s a doddle to put a name to them. Others take a more effort.

You might have to spend time leafing through the bird guide, so take a photo or make notes in case the bird flies off before you’ve identified it. Some of the key features are the bird’s size, colour, pattern, and beak shape. Focus your attention on these.

Taking notes will also help you with LBBs (little brown birds), those small nondescript bundles that all look the same. You will get a great deal of satisfaction when you manage to identify one. This feeling will be immediately replaced by uncertainty. By then, the bird will have disappeared, so you will never know if you were correct. Note: some LBBs are actually grey.

It won’t take long to become familiar with regular feathered visitors to street and garden. You can get a head start by going to eBird to find which species have been recorded from your area. Local birding societies might also have websites with similar information. For bird calls, check out xeno-canto, which is a citizen science project sharing recordings from across the world.

I need to write down names or I’ll forget them
A lot of bird-watchers make a list of which species they’ve seen, where they’ve seen them and when. If you do keep a list, there are as many ways of doing it as there are bird-watchers. We’re an idiosyncratic bunch.

I have two: my Australian life list and my world life list (a life list is a compilation of all the species you’ve seen). I only add species I saw well enough that I could identify them again, and because I’m a very mediocre bird-watcher, my list covers only about 75% of the species that I’ve laid eyes on. Quite a lot of my time is spent asking “what was that?”

It’s handy to have a list, but if it’s not your thing, don’t worry about it. Nothing about backyard birding is compulsory.

They won’t sit still
Some species are absolutely brazen, but others take off at the slightest movement. How do you get a good enough view to identify them?

Bird hides, that’s how.

A hide is a structure that conceals you from the birds. Houses, as it turns out, are really good hides. As are cars. Garden birds will ignore you, as long as you don’t move too quickly or attract notice through flashes of light reflecting from watches, spectacles, and other hard surfaces.

But if you’ve got a large garden, you might like to try a real hide. You can buy a fancy portable one, but you can also make your own. I’ve seen a delivery box for a refrigerator used as a bird hide. You don’t even have to paint the cardboard; birds have no interest in brand names or whether you’re adhering to instructions about “this side up”. All you need to do is cut a door in the back of the box for entry and exit, and a slot in the front for viewing, grab a camping stool for comfort, and you’ve got yourself an effective, if slightly claustrophobic, hide. Just don’t leave it out in the rain.

But there are no birds in my garden
No problem! Virtual birding is a thing. Across the world, trail cameras have been set up at bird baths and feeding stations. Cornell University’s ornithology lab has cameras in a range of birding locations, including Panama, Bermuda and the USA. The Audubon Society links to a variety of bird cams across the Americas. A web search will offer access to a bird cams in backyards and national parks all over the world. You might even set up a trail camera to record the avian activities in your own garden.