The value of active bird watching

observing birds

Tips for improving birding skills usually include the suggestion to carry a notebook and take notes or draw sketches in the field. Your first thought might be, “I can’t draw, and what can I write?” but that misses the point. It doesn’t matter what you write or what your drawings look like. The value of drawing and note-taking is in the process, not the product.

The reason is simple – these things force you to look at the details, to actively engage in observation. And there is no need to write or draw; just being an active observer has rewards.

A recent study on perception and memory found that when students went to a museum and took snapshots of artwork, they remembered very little. In fact, they remembered less well than students who didn’t take pictures. But students who photographed specific details of the artwork remembered more, even details they had not photographed.

If simply taking a few seconds to choose which part of an object to photograph can have a measurable impact on memory, imagine what a minute or two of actively observing a bird can do.


“There is no need to write or draw; just being an active observer has rewards.

Do kinglets have different wing beats?  (Yes, a little.) Terrain sketch by David SibleyA question David Sibley asked in the field: do kinglets have different wing beats? (Yes, slightly.) Golden-crowned Kinglet above; Ruby crown below. Terrain sketch by David Sibley

For example: you are walking along a path on your local patch and a Song Sparrow appears where you have seen a Song Sparrow dozens of times. You could just keep walking without hesitation and not remember at the end if you actually saw a song sparrow that day. On the other hand, if you stop to look, ask a question, and select certain details, you will remember seeing the song sparrow and those details, as well as other details that you didn’t even focus on. .

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It can be fun and informative to ask a question for the day and ask it for each bird you see. Taking the time to research the color of the feet, tail movements, head shape, or something else on each species you see will lead to many interesting discoveries.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how you engage. All you have to do is take a minute or two to watch and marvel.


This article first appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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