A Short Guide to Birding
Juliette Leblanc encourages us to open our eyes and ears to the avian world around us — and promises it will make us happier.
A few years ago, a crow died on my land, attracting a murder of its fellows, who spent the whole day cawing to each other. When evening came, a sudden, unusual sound drove me outside: 200 crows were flying in a perfect circle above the dead bird, in a din of cries and beating wings. Then, at the exact moment the sun disappeared below the horizon, they fell silent and scattered all at once. A quick internet search revealed that I’d just witnessed a funeral. It was fascinating and terrifying, in the manner of things that we don’t fully understand. I spent the whole next week reading articles about crows.
Ever since that day, I’ve taken an interest in the birds in the park next to my house and the trees surrounding me. I can now identify some by their calls. I pause to look for the pileated woodpecker that lives in the little woodland when I hear it drilling in a tree. I’m annoyed by the goldfinch, whom we’ve nicknamed Jerry, who clamours at the window at 5:30 a.m. to attract females. When I notice a silence suddenly fall, I know to look up and catch a glimpse of a falcon hovering.
One of the things that have kept me sane these past few weeks has been the chickadees nibbling thyme seeds in the garden.
Everyone agrees that being financially comfortable greatly reduces daily stress. But this year, researchers at Ecological Economics published a study showing that living near a natural environment, and particularly an area populated by birds, has an even greater direct effect on our overall life satisfaction. In short, opportunities to observe bird life might make us happier than pursuing financial success, at least beyond our basic economic needs.
At a time when many of us are disconnected from nature, birding is a truly accessible way to commune with the world around us.
Here is a non-exhaustive guide to bird species you can observe in Québec and some basic birdwatching practices, brought to you by an admittedly clumsy amateur birdwatcher.
Ten common bird species in Québec
(that I particularly like to look for)
The robin is one of the first birds you hear in the morning and one of the last to sing in the evening. It sports a black head, a yellow beak, a black-and-white streaked throat, and a rusty red breast. The male is often more brightly coloured than the female.
Habitat: Wooded areas, farmlands, and urban areas.
The most common of the American chickadees, the black-capped chickadee has an unbridled curiosity and is a big fan of feeders. If you’d like a little bird to eat sunflower seeds out of your palm, this guy’s a good bet!
Habitat: Deciduous or mixed-wood forests, parks, and gardens.
In breeding season, you can identify the male chipping sparrow by his breeding plumage, which features a showy rusty crown. There are actually quite a number of different sparrows in Québec, and they are one of the most widespread, common bird families in North America.
Habitat: Forests, meadows, gardens, and fields.
The barn swallow has a reddish-brown throat and forehead and a blue-black head. Its flight is swift and jerky, impressive to watch.
Habitat: Meadows, marshes, parks, and gardens.
There are 34 species of warblers in Québec, most of which boast brightly coloured plumage. Fun fact: the plumage of the male common yellowthroat, also known as the “yellow bandit,” makes it look like it’s wearing a bandit mask.
Habitat: Forests, marshes, meadows, and gardens.
This magnificent bird looks like someone painted it in watercolours. The plumage of the male ranges from light raspberry pink to bright crimson. The female’s plumage is striped brown.
Habitat: Coniferous and mixed-wood forests, including along their edges.
This rather loud bird has a nasal call. Its belly, throat, cheeks, and breast are white, as its name suggests. Its long claws help it walk dexterously along tree trunks in all directions. You’ll often see it upside down, foraging for food under branches.
Habitat: Old, open deciduous or mixed-wood forests, orchards, parks, and suburban gardens.
If its common name is regal, its scientific name — Tyrannus tyrannus — evokes the darker side of royalty. It’s also particularly apt, as the eastern kingbird fiercely defends its territory, even from much larger birds. It’s a tyrannical tyrant of the trees.
Habitat: Forest edges, farms, woodland edges, and parks.
The male has bright yellow plumage in summer, which turns olive green in winter. The female has a dull brownish-yellow plumage that brightens in the summer.
Habitat: Lives close to human activity in city suburbs and open meadows.
The head of this caramel-coloured bird is capped with a long, brownish crest. It has a blindfold-like black band around its eyes as well as a black beak. It’s a stunning bird with silky-looking plumage. The song of the cedar waxwing sounds like a very soft whistle.
Habitat: Forest edges, orchards, gardens, and urban parks. This bird is particularly fond of fruit trees or berry plants; it feasts on the gooseberries and redcurrants in my garden.
Seven steps to
getting started in birding
1. Go outside.
Begin by identifying the birds in your backyard, courtyard, alley, or along your usual routes: your path to work or the grocery store, for example. If you can, set up a bird feeder on your balcony or near a window. Black sunflower seeds are a sure bet to attract visitors.
2. Acquire a printed guide.
Choose a lightweight guide that focuses on the major bird families and the most common species. If your interest and ambitions grow, get a larger guide to keep at home: you can use it to confirm what birds you’ve spotted once you get back. There are also excellent bird identification smartphone apps.
3. Invest in a pair of binoculars.
You don’t have to acquire binoculars for birdwatching, but it will enrich your experience and help you spot some shyer species — plus you’ll look like a pro doing it. Opt for relatively lightweight but sturdy waterproof binoculars. And, it goes without saying, kindly adjust your focus on the sparrows in the trees and not your neighbours in their living room.
A little tip: When shopping for binoculars, check their brightness by pointing them toward the darkest corner of the store. You’ll want your binoculars to be high enough quality to catch birds’ furtive movements, even when it’s overcast or the darkish light of dawn.
4. Expand your area of exploration.
Some birds prefer to be near bodies of water; others prefer woodlands, fields, or mountains. If you live in the city, head to city parks, especially in the spring and fall when migratory birds are on the move. Urban parks are oases in a sea of asphalt and, just like us, birds like to rest there to recharge.
5. Join a group of amateur birdwatchers.
Most cities and areas have amateur birder groups. Of course, given pandemic restrictions, birdwatching networks have curtailed their activities and are mostly providing information at the moment. But you can always invite a family member along for a socially distanced initiation to birding!
6. Become an early bird.
As your interest grows, you’ll soon learn that most birds sleep at night and wake up hungry. You can spot birds at any time of the day, of course, but the morning is a particularly great time to catch them in action.
7. Respect the birds and their habitat.
Follow Birds Canada’s Code of Birding Ethics. Avoid chasing or scaring birds, keep your distance from nests, do not disturb nocturnal birds in daytime, and do not use recordings imitating bird calls during mating season.
Set yourself challenges that match your ambitions and schedule: for example, you could aim to correctly identify four birds by sight and song by the end of the summer. If you’re more disciplined than I am, you can keep track of your observations in a notebook. If you enjoy drawing — that is, if you can do more than doodle an abstract banana — you might try sketching the birds you see.
It’s extremely refreshing to suck at a new pastime and stick with it anyway. I actually still enjoy not knowing what bird I’m looking at and asking my boyfriend, “What do you call that bird again, the one with a pinkish red-orange belly that eats haskap berries?”1 See just how rigorous a birder I am? But that’s what I think is wonderful about it: you don’t need to have encyclopedic knowledge to appreciate the world of birdwatching. Finding a cute little bird is enough.
Worth the trip: Nine excellent birdwatching sites in Québec
- Cap-aux-Oies, Les Éboulements (Capitale-Nationale)
- Parc national de Frontenac (Estrie)
- Parc national du Lac-Témiscouata (Bas-Saint-Laurent)
- Parc national des Îles-de-Boucherville (Montérégie)
- Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area (Capitale-Nationale)
- Parc national de Plaisance (Outaouais)
- Baie-du-Febvre and Lac Saint-Pierre (Centre-du-Québec)
- Summit Woods Park (Montréal)
- Parc-nature de la Pointe-aux-Prairies and Parc-nature du Cap-Saint-Jacques (Montréal)