Most of us can recognize a few common birds: robins, cardinals, blue jays, seagulls, and maybe some hawks and hummingbirds. Beyond that, our fine feathered friends are mostly just a blur of little brown birds. But more and more Americans are keen on distinguishing a ruby-crowned kinglet from a cedar waxwing. In fact, birding is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the nation, according to the Agriculture Dept.'s Forest Service, which found that 71 million people watched birds in 2000, up from 21 million in 1982.
And why not? Birds are beautiful creatures that have captured humans' fancy at least since the Etruscans studied their flight patterns for clues to the future nearly 3000 years ago. You can enjoy bird-watching at any age or in any physical condition, and you don't have to spend a lot of money to do it. Birding can mean sitting on your deck with a pair of binoculars and an iced tea or trekking through rugged mountains trying to identify scores of species in a single day.
If you're interested in sharpening your avian acumen, getting started is easy. Just don't do what I did: head to the local park with The Sibley Guide to Birds, a beautiful 544-page tome that is totally unsuitable for beginners, and the wrong binoculars (a borrowed pair I couldn't use without removing my glasses). I would find a bird in the brush, fumble with the binoculars, fumble with my glasses, fumble with the binoculars again--and the bird would be gone. Locating birds in the book was no easier because they were categorized under oh-so-helpful headings such as "mimids" and "trogons."
You can do better. First, get a field guide that's easy to use and specific to your geographic area (the Eastern or Western half of the U.S.), so you don't have to slog through many pages of descriptions of birds you're unlikely to see. The Petersen's field guides to the birds of North America (Houghton Mifflin, $22) are classics. They feature illustrations for each bird, even though at first glance, photos may look more realistic to untrained eyes. But illustrated guides can clearly show all the marks a bird might have that would help you identify it, even though any individual bird might not have all of these markings. And illustrated guides cram more species onto a page, which means you'll spend less time flipping around.
If you insist on a photographic guide, Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Little Brown, $17.95) is well-regarded. Kenn Kaufman's Birds of North America (Houghton Mifflin, $20) uses digitally retouched photos to make sure each bird's markings are visible.
Finding the right pair of binoculars is simple, too, though it may take some time. "When you bring the binoculars to your eyes, you should see clearly and easily," says Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. "If you struggle, it's wrong." That said, he offers a few pointers. Look for binoculars with 7 or 8 "power" (that's the first number in the description, as in 8x35). Higher power binoculars are hard to hold steady, and good ones cost a bundle. The second number is the lens diameter--the bigger it is, the better you'll see in low light. A good minimum for the lens diameter is 30.
Test the binoculars before you buy them. They should focus quickly, and you should be able to use them one-handed. If you wear glasses, try binoculars with rubber eye cups that can be rolled back to make viewing more comfortable. A good entry-level binocular is the Nikon Naturalist IV 7x35, for about $100. The Swift Ultralight line and the Swift Audubon 8.5x44 are both good choices and under $300.
Finally, there are the birds. Start with your backyard, a local park, or a nearby wildlife refuge. Once you find a bird that's not too hidden or far away, take a good look. Maybe the bird is small and plump with a long, dark tail, a white belly, and subtle gray-and-white stripes on its wings. That could be an eastern phoebe, if it's mostly a soft gray color, or maybe a least flycatcher, if it's more olive brown. But don't consult the field guide yet. You don't want to miss the bird while you're thumbing through the book.
Once you've got a good picture of the bird in your head, then turn to the guide. If the bird was tapping its tail, it could indeed be a phoebe; with a white ring around its eye and yellow on its beak, it's more likely the least flycatcher. The guide will tell you.
If all that reading and analysis sounds like a little too much for you alone, call the nearest chapter of the National Audubon Society, a state park, or a wildlife refuge and ask about bird walks and clubs for beginners. Or try the Web site birdingpal.com, which helps you find experienced birders in your area.
On any bird walk, just remember to keep your voice low and let the most knowledgeable folks go first. Stick close to the group leaders, and they'll point out and identify birds, help you find them in your binoculars, and answer questions about what makes each bird distinctive. With luck, their enthusiasm will help you understand why birding has so many fans. By Kimberly Weisul