Do you know your local bird species? Learning them by sight is a great educational experience for kids and adults alike (children as young as 5 can identify birds by sight and call). Bird-watching fosters patience, focus, and attention to detail and helps make observers more keenly aware of the small seasonal changes in weather, light and foliage, as well as animal behavior. It's a great low-impact activity that gets us away from computers and out of the house, though of course you can bird-watch from inside too. Disabled or homebound people can enjoy birding too. 

downy woodpeckerWinter is one of the best times to observe birds; they are easier to see since there's less leaf cover, and if there's snow on the ground they are often easier to spot. (See details of how to set up a birdfeeder below.)

Saturday, Dec. 14, is the kickoff of the 114th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which runs through Jan. 5. It's a great opportunity to get involved in some citizen science. How does it work? Once you sign up with the Audubon Society, you will be assigned one day in the period to count, depending on where you live: 

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced bird-watcher.
Why count? "The data collected by CBC participants over the past century and more have become one of only two large pools of information informing ornithologists and conservation biologists how the birds of the Americas are faring over time," according to Audubon.

Interested in joining a Christmas Bird Count near you? You can find a local circle of recorders on this page at the Audubon Society's site. Of course, you can start bird-watching anytime. The easiest way to begin is to set up a birdfeeder outside a window that's easy to look through (a kitchen window is ideal, but choose your best vantage point — keep in mind it could be on the second floor). Set it up close enough to the window so you will be able to see birds easily (otherwise you will need binoculars, which you can find used on eBay for a low cost).

If you are going to start feeding birds, be sure you are consistent about it; once your local bird population knows where to get regular feed, it will come to depend on it — more so if you are in a rural area where there are likely fewer feeders to compensate if you stop or forget. If you are going to discontinue feeding birds, the summer and fall are the best times, since they have more natural food sources at that time.

Of course, you can also go outside — to a wooded area, a city park, or a suburban street — look up, and start taking notes. Songbirds are everywhere, though there will be far more diversity in forests than in a more human-populated area. 

How to bird-watch

You don't need much equipment, but you will need a guide. (You can look on used book sites, your library, or local bookstore, and also consider the apps below.) Keep in mind that bird species don't change much, so a 10-year-old printed guide is just fine. Look for guides with plenty of images, as well as descriptions and range maps, which will help you figure out if the bird you are looking at is the right one. Birds that inhabit Georgia and the Carolinas only won't be found in Oregon, for example. 

As the video below suggests, keeping a notebook is also useful for writing down descriptions and questions to look up later. If you are good at drawing, it can be fun to make your own bird illustrations. As mentioned, binoculars are useful for getting a closer look. 

Attract birds naturally

You can also attract birds to your yard and garden in other ways besides feeders, including by planting bird-friendly berry bushes and other native plants and flowers (remember, local birds will be adapted to eating seeds, nuts and berries from plants that have grown in your area for thousands of years), and creating habitat and providing birdhouses for them to find cover and raise their young.

Eliminating pesticides is an important part of supporting your local bird population, since some pesticides make birds sick, and a healthy bird population will naturally keep pest insect populations down, in turn making the need for pesticides moot. In fact, one of the great benefits to having plenty of local birds around your house and garden is that they will happily devour mosquitoes, ticks, flies and other annoying insects. 

5 great bird-watching apps

The right app for you depends on several factors: If you already have a guide you prefer, if you relate more to images or illustrations, if you want to hear bird calls and songs and how much additional information you would like (range maps, similar birds, and links to additional resources are all options that some of these have and some don't). It's worth checking out the site for each of these before buying to see what feels most useful to you. 

two cardinalsAudubon Birds uses photos for identification (ideal since birds — even of the same species — can vary in appearance depending on light level and location, and definitely look different according to age and sex — like the cardinals at right). It is also the only app that partners with eBird, which is Cornell University's online program that allows you to keep track of birds and lists of bird species you've identified, and also share that data with researchers. This app also contains five recordings of the birdcall of the species you are identifying, in case you are hearing a bird but not seeing it. 

iBird Pro is the oldest app on the list, and it provides photos and illustrations of all the birds included. It does have an easy search tool to find birds based on their shape and color, which is a useful way to find the names of new birds. 

National Geographic Birds uses painted illustrations from the Nat Geo field guide and has a clean, uncluttered design, but the lack of images might make some IDs a bit tricky, especially for new birders.

Peterson Birds advertises itself as the "budget guide for birders" and it even has a free app for the birds you will see out your kitchen window at your birdfeeder (fewer species than the full, paid app, but a great place to start). Peterson also uses illustrations, but gives you the option to upload your own photos within the app, which is cool if you are into capturing photos of your sightings. 

Sibley eGuide to Birds has more aural examples for each bird than the other apps, and some people like the illustrations here more than photos. 

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Photo of downy woodpecker: Gerald A. DeBoer/Shutterstock

Photo of cardinals: Steve Byland/Shutterstock