Birding is an easy, inexpensive family activity that requires almost no equipment beyond a pair of binoculars, some comfortable shoes, and a field guide.

If you have ever been enraptured by the wild calls of a loon on a northern lake, or surprised by an owl’s sudden appearance in your backyard late one night, or caught your breath at the dazzling colours of a Baltimore oriole, you have tasted something of the fascinating world of birds.

Birding is an active quest

Without realizing it, you have also derived some tangible and intangible health benefits from this contact with birds and being in nature. Birdwatching, or birding as it is referred to nowadays, is an engaging way to experience more of nature and the outdoors.

Searching for wild birds in their natural habitat, birding takes you through all types of terrain—city parks, rural farms, wetlands, seashores, mountains, and even sewage lagoons and landfill sites. It not only gets you walking but also hiking, biking, canoeing, and even mountain climbing, in every season and in all types of weather.

Birding is an invigorating outdoor pursuit, with many health benefits accruing almost unnoticed while you are focused on finding the birds.

Birding is as casual or serious as you make it

Many people engage in birding to discover the beauty of the birds nearby, while enjoying a leisurely time outdoors with like-minded devotees. Others take a more scientific approach, fascinated by the awesome wonders of the avian world.

For some it’s an obsession, an addiction to the adventure (the 2011 movie, The Big Year, had actors Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson competing with each other in a mad race to spot the greatest number of bird species in North America in a calendar year). Birding is new every time, delivering the unexpected, challenging at many levels, with endless learning possibilities.

Birding’s healthy side benefits

Birding takes you outside on a regular basis—a healthy thing all on its own. In a systematic review of a number of recent studies that compared walking for the same time or distance indoors versus walking outdoors, the participants scored “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement; decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression; and increased energy after they walked outside.”

This past May, the David Suzuki Foundation challenged Canadians “to commit to spending 30 minutes in nature each day for 30 days.” The purpose was to determine if a daily dose of nature was good for you, though they suspected this was the case.

Their research sources indicated that time spent in nature reduced anxiety and depression, decreased stress, and increased energy. Other benefits included increased immunity and vitamin D production, improved weight loss and fitness, reduced symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and possibly lowered risk of diabetes, heart attack, and cancer.

Henry David Thoreau was aware of the correlation between good health and being active outdoors more than 150 years ago. In his “Walking” essay, penned in 1862, he mentioned his own need to walk outdoors for four or more hours a day to “preserve his health and spirits” and was astonished at how his neighbours could stay indoors the whole day, every day.

This lack of contact with the natural world is now referred to as “nature-deficit disorder.” A hypothesis first presented in 2005 in the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, the author argues the need for kids to spend more unstructured time outdoors, with fewer organized activities and less screen time. His later book, The Nature Principle (Algonquin Books, 2005 and 2011), applied the same premise to adults.

Birding is an unequalled family affair

It’s the type of family activity that fits the recommendations of the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, including taking up a new sport and being active with the family on the weekend.

Even the youngest can be packed along on a hike, while older children, charged with carrying the binoculars and field guide, can challenge the adults in identifying a new bird. Birding adds a new dimension to a walk to the store, gives a reason for a longer day-hike, and lends more purpose to a vacation.

Try a specialized outing, such as an owl prowl. Together you’ll discover the deep baritone of a great horned owl or witness the wild cacophony of a pair of barred owls. Such experiences make lasting memories, creating common bonds and a lifetime interest in nature.

Look, listen, and learn

Getting started in birding is as simple as stepping outside. It requires some basic, inexpensive equipment, as described in the sidebar on page 110. Walk around your block or to the nearest park. Birds are everywhere, and now you’re making a conscious effort to notice them.

Use your ears

Jays call noisily from the shade trees, while a flock of swallows twitter constantly to each other as they gather on the hydro wires in preparation for their journey south. Plump, rust-coloured fox sparrows and sleek white-crowned sparrows feed among the fallen leaves under the foundation plantings, calling sharply back and forth.

Use a field guide

Such sightings whet the appetite for more, though the similarity between some species is confusing at first. Use your field guide to help you differentiate each bird by

  • family
  • outstanding markings
  • colour
  • size
  • shape
  • habits
  • sounds
  • where and when it is seen

Keep a list

Use a notebook to record the day’s sightings and all the details. Have your children keep a list of species sighted at a favourite locale, and watch it grow through the seasons.

Talk to local experts

Avail yourself of local expertise by connecting with a regional naturalists club. See the sidebar above to find out where to look for birds. With frequent practice and some expert guidance, you’ll soon compile an impressive list of local bird sightings.

It’s possible to bird all of your life. Once you’re hooked you won’t need an excuse to exercise—you’ll be birding.

Essential equipment for birding

  • Borrow a pair of binoculars—a must for birding—if you don’t have some, trying them for ease of use before buying your own. Look online for advice on buying a pair for birding.
  • Borrow two or three different field guides to determine your preference before buying one. If there is a bird guide specifically for your region, get a copy—it will prove invaluable.
  • Pack a small notebook and pencil.
  • Wear appropriate outdoor clothing suited to the weather and season. Include sturdy shoes or boots and a hat.
  • Be prepared with natural bug repellent and sunscreen.

Who to ask

Find a contact for the local field naturalists club online or from your local library or town office. Their members know the best local spots for birding, and when to visit. Connect with the club on a trip, taking advantage of their willingness to share their expertise and experiences.

Where the birds are

Natural areas that offer food, water, and shelter for birds are the best places to try birding. Visit a nearby city park, conservation area, or provincial park. Go back in different seasons; birds have the freedom to move around at will, and fall is a time of migration for many, providing some often spectacular sightings.

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