5 tips to become a better backyard birder

January 21, 2016, 10:36 a.m.

Birding is an increasingly popular hobby, and no wonder. Watching birds outside your window is a relaxing hobby, and it's easy for someone to get wrapped up in wanting to spot new species farther afield. But rather than traveling to distant locations for workshops, if you'd like to hone your birding skills you can do so without even stepping outside. Here are five tips to help you become a better birder.

1. Keep a sketchbook by the back window

It's great to have a stack of reference books so you can look up a species when you spot it. But to really study the nuances of a species' plumage at different times of year or different ages, or to get a solid grasp of the differences between similar species, it helps to sketch the birds. You don't have to have great drawing skills -- just enough to be able to jot down things like the shape and length of the bill, the patterns of the feathers, the coloration and so on. By slowing down and taking the time to sketch what you see, you commit more to memory and you'll have an easier time identifying birds later when you're out in the field.

2. Step up your binocular skills

Birds are known for being, well, flighty so it can be more than a little frustrating that right when you finally get your binoculars trained on a bird and in focus, it flies away. You can reduce how often that happens by getting really good at using your binoculars. Practice spotting something and raising your binoculars to your face so you land on whatever you spotted immediately. Practice focusing your binoculars on various objects around the yard, jumping from something close to something far and back again, so that adjusting focus becomes a matter of muscle memory. That way you aren't struggling to figure out how to focus on a bird that will only stay perched for a brief moment.

3. Learn bird calls by ear

Many times you can hear a bird much more easily than you can see it. So it's important to learn to recognize bird songs by ear and identify the species by the sound. There are bird song apps that can help you with listening to different calls and learning them by heart. There is also a trick to recognizing a species' call in the field. Birders use mnemonic devices for different calls. For example, in the barred owl's song, the raptor continually asks, "Who-cooks-for-you; who-cooks-for-you-all?" Learning these little phrases will help you identify the species of the bird by ear.

4. Create a behavior book

Taking notes is a key part of birding, as it helps you discover the nuances of different species. Noting down details provides a wealth of information and helps you to remember more about a species, from when they migrate to when they nest or fledge, to when their plumage changes for the seasons. But noting down behavior is also a key element. Keep a notebook with you whenever you're bird watching and note down things like how individuals act around food, around different species, around rivals, mates, offspring, predators or even when they're alone. Carefully noting how a bird acts will get you more familiar with bird body language, and the reasons for certain behavior will clue you in on whether there is a predator or competitor nearby even if you only see one bird.

5. Quiz yourself

There's a reason why your teacher gave you pop quizzes in class. It was to see if you were paying attention! Every so often, quiz yourself about bird species, behaviors, calls, phases of plumage and so on. You can make your own flash cards, take online quizzes, or even get together with a friend who is also a birder and quiz each other over coffee. These little tests can be entertaining and will also help you quickly recall facts about birds that you'll need to have at the ready when on birding trips.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.