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A black-crowned night-heron perched by the Chicago River, downtown Chicago, with the city's beautiful bridges in the background.
Photograph: Shutterstock

How to start bird watching in Chicago, according to an expert

“The only thing you really need is your curiosity.”

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

2020 was—among many other things—the unofficial year of new hobbies, when many of us turned to sourdough starters, knitting needles and other diversions to escape the doldrums of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Life is looking a lot closer to normal now, but just because quarantine is over doesn't mean you should stop being curious. Welcome to Hobbies 2.0, a new series in which we talk to local experts who can help you dive into the world of post-pandemic hobbies. They'll walk us through the basics of their field with a bit of tried-and-true advice, from how to get started to places where you can continue to build your burgeoning skills (and hey, maybe even make some new friends along the way).

This week, we talk to Antonio Flores, program and communications manager at the Chicago Audubon Society, about how to go birding in Chicago. 

It's fair to say that bird watching has been having something of a protracted moment over the past year. The naturalistic pastime—once reserved largely for retirees and wildlife enthusiasts—surged in popularity in 2020, thanks to a quarantine-driven desire to reconnect with the natural world (and because of birders like Christian Cooper, whose viral video of a white woman calling the police on him while birdwatching in Central Park sparked nationwide discussions about implicit bias and racism in the birding community). And the momentum doesn't show any signs of slowing down: Global Big Day, the annual birdwatching event hosted by the eBird program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, set a new global record in 2021, drawing more than 50,000 people from 175 countries who logged sightings of different species on the group's app.

Want to get in on the birding action here in Chicago? Antonio Flores, the program and communications manager at the Chicago Audubon Society and a lifelong admirer of birds, shared his tips for getting into urban bird watching below.

Antonio Flores birding in the woods
Photograph: Antonio Flores

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. Don't feel like you have to go nuts on gear

"This is one of those hobbies where there's no limit to how much money you can sink into it, when it comes to gear acquisitions and trips you can take. But the really awesome thing about it is that there's also no bottom end to it. You can definitely get binoculars—that always helps, and it's really cool to have that superhuman vision where you can see a bird so close and see the little details of its feathers—but they're not necessary. The only thing you really need is your curiosity."

"There are a bunch of free apps, like Merlin Bird ID, which is just amazing. You can upload pictures and it will guess what kind of bird it is, but you can also ask questions about how big it is, what colors you see and what it's doing. And just based on data in combination with your location and date, it can narrow the list down to like two to four species, and it's really, really accurate. They even have this new thing where you can turn it on, hold your microphone up to a singing bird, and it will actively try to guess what type of bird it is. It's uncanny."

2. Use the buddy system

"I think the most helpful thing is to go with somebody that does know a little bit. They don't have to be experts by any means—maybe just a couple of weeks ahead of you—but that social interaction and modeling that really helps a lot. And if somebody doesn't know anyone in their circle directly, they can definitely connect with us at Chicago Audubon. We have a Facebook group and a Facebook page and everybody's invited to join. I believe this is the case for the Chicago Ornithological Society as well. (Editor's note: It is.) They're both really cool groups, full of awesome people, and they're also full of resources."

"All of the Chicago Audubon Society walks are always free, and we try to bring extra binoculars so that people can borrow them. I would encourage everyone to go to our website and look for upcoming events. And if a person happens to live in an area where there aren't any events, just email us. We're always glad to go birding in new places and we would love to come to you."

A Chicago Audubon birdwalk led by Deja Perkins at Sherman Park.
Photograph: Walter Kitundu @birdturntable

3. Start on your own block

"You can literally just go outside your door, or maybe even look outside from your window. Start looking at the birds and just take a couple of minutes to watch—like what are they doing, what are you noticing, how big are they in relation to other other birds you've seen before? Do they have colors? Are they eating, or are they dancing, or are they practicing playing? They're just cool and fun and interesting to watch."

"Chicago is really lucky because we have a large amount of public lands—there's actually a special department within the Chicago Park District where they plant native plants and create habitats for native ecosystems, and they're super welcoming to birds—so almost every Chicago park will be awesome for birds. Generally speaking, a lot of birders really like to go to the Montrose Bird Sanctuary, Montrose Point. It's really exciting right now because there's even a project going on to make it more accessible for people with mobility issues."

"Me personally, I love, love, love the South Side, and especially the Calumet area. There are a bunch of high quality parts that have such dynamic personalities throughout the year, like Big Marsh Park, Indian Ridge Marsh. It's a lot of fun to go and explore those places."

4. Get acquainted with the regulars

"There are a couple of birds that we can see all the time here in Chicago, no matter what time of the year. The northern cardinal—that's the red bird we see singing really often—the house sparrow, European starlings, the American goldfinch. Also the black-capped chickadee. That's one of my favorite birds, and they stick around all year long. And of course, the rock dove, the pigeon that everyone knows."

"There are a couple of other birds that aren't as common, like the white-breasted nuthatch, but you'll probably have to go to a park or forest preserve to see it."

5. Remember that everyone bird watches differently

"When I started out, I would take my field guide, and, like, write a list of the birds I saw. I was very studious about it, but it wasn't necessarily the most fun. Some of the most fun I've had with has been people who just bird in entirely different ways. I have a friend whose sketches live, like just sits in front of a bird, and just sketches it like a live model. For me personally, I really enjoy taking pictures of birds, because I might not notice every detail right away. But if I capture a picture, I can always bring it home and do more research on the image that I have."

"I think the cool thing about birds is that everyone can kind of relate to them and enjoy them in a way that is very personal to them. It's a really deep experience—it can be as spiritual as you want, it can be as meditative as you want, and there's a tremendous amount of benefits that go with walking now around in these habitats where birds live."

To check out Chicago Audubon Society's upcoming bird walks, events and other helpful resources, visit the organization's website.

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