Bird Watching: How to Get Started

Starting bird watching with your kids couldn’t be easier. Even in the depths of the city, in parks and back gardens, on lamp-posts and roadside trees, you’ll find something to watch and some of the best opportunities exist outside your own kitchen window, particularly if you have a bird bath and put out food for them. When you do venture further afield, whether that’s a woodland walk, a foreign holiday or simply visiting granny, the fun can start all over again with a whole new collection of birds to see.

From a parent’s point of view, aside of the obvious green benefits and educational value, there are two great bonuses to bird watching. You don’t have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of local birds yourself before you can begin – you can learn along with your youngsters – and compared with many other pastimes, it’s fairly cheap. You don’t need much to get going, even if you’re starting from scratch, so there’s plenty of time to pick up the rest of the bits and pieces as you discover you need them.


Although you can manage quite well without binoculars, particularly if you’re planning on starting off by watching birds on your own bird table, a good pair really is a sound investment. While many of the bolder and more familiar garden birds will feel quite relaxed about coming to feed with eager little faces pressed up against the window, some kinds are a little more wary and will tend to keep their distance if they don’t feel completely safe. Even though the distances in your back garden may not be massive, a small bird sitting on the boundary fence isn’t the easiest of things to observe. Add to this the fact that a number of small species can look surprisingly similar, which can leave you floundering to decide what you’ve seen unless you get a really good look, and the benefits of binoculars become self-evident.

There are models specifically designed for younger children – often in bright colours, if that appeals to yours – which fit little hands and faces, while adult versions will be fine for most older kids. Although some types of binoculars are very costly, you don’t need to spend a fortune to equip the family’s bird watchers, so it’s worth getting everyone their own pair. For one thing it avoids any potential squabbles, but more importantly it’s much better fun when you can all look at that unusual and unexpected visitor at the same time.

A Good Guide

The only other piece of equipment that’s absolutely essential is a good field guide. There’s no shortage of books on the subject and a quick look around your local bookshop or browse on the internet will present you with a huge array of titles. If you’re new to bird watching, all this choice can be a little bewildering, so it’s worth taking the time to get the one that’s right for you. Try to have a good look at as many different ones as you can before making your selection. In the end it all comes down to personal choice, but some of the things you might want to consider are:

  • Where and how are you going to use it? A big or heavy book could be great for home use, but you may not be so keen to carry it on a hike.
  • How good are the illustrations? Pick a bird you already know by sight and look it up. Would you recognise it from the picture? Some artists are fantastic at this job, others aren’t, so if in doubt, look for a book with actual photographs.
  • Does it give any indication of size? A surprising number don’t, and how big a bird is can often be a huge help in identifying it.
  • Is it easy to use? Books with complicated systems of symbols to describe habits, distribution and favoured habitat don’t suit everyone. Pick a book you feel comfortable with, or it’ll probably always sit on the shelf.
  • Can the kids use it? If it’s not easy for them too, they’re likely to get fed up even trying.

Identifying What You See

Half the fun in bird watching is being able to put names to what you see, and it’s amazing how quickly youngsters will start to recognise the commoner species. Some birds are so unmistakable that identification is pretty straightforward; you’re not likely to confuse a heron, for instance, with anything else. Many, however, look frustratingly similar, to the extent that you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that your garden is solely visited by a range of small and anonymously brown birds.

This is, of course, where your guide proves its worth, but watching birds is about so much more than simply looking at them. If you can encourage your youngsters to sharpen up their observational skills, to spot that white band on the wing, or the black stripe through the eye – and take notes – then the whole process of identifying them becomes so much easier, and a whole lot more fun too.

Bird watching is a great activity for kids of all ages. It’s an ideal way to learn about some of Britain’s most fascinating wildlife, and perhaps best of all it’s a year-round hobby that can spark a lifetime’s interest.