Kevin Burns

Advice for Backyard Birding

Kevin Burns, ornithologist and professor of biology, was part of a team that recently identified a new bird — the Inti tanager — found in Bolivia and Peru. Here, he shares tips for aspiring birders.

Interview by Sarah White

March 11, 2022

Got any advice for aspiring backyard birders?

Birding is for everyone, everywhere! Figuring out what’s supposed to be nearby — the part of the world, the habitat you’re in and when you’re looking — narrows down the possible species from 10,000 to a few hundred. Observe the sounds and behaviors of birds to help you identify them: Are they perched or only on the ground? How do they beat their wings? Then pay attention to size, shape and colors.

What’s the best way to figure out what birds are in the area?

There’s a great app called Merlin and website that have been built through community science and can identify sounds, like a Shazam for birds.  And I always recommend the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” co-authored by an SDSU alumnus, Jon L. Dunn.

Do I need binoculars?

You’ll likely identify birds first by their sound, but binoculars help you see them closer. Start by borrowing a pair or getting some that also work for sporting events — 7x35 should work well for places with plenty of light.

What’s the best time of day to look for birds?

If you want to see more birds, you should look at dawn, especially for little songbirds. Hawks are more active as the day gets warmer.

Which birds are most common in San Diego in spring?

San Diego has the most diverse bird population in the U.S.; more than 500 species have been seen here, which is incredible for being outside the tropics. And 123 bird species have been seen on SDSU’s campus! In spring, the Hooded Oriole and warblers will be returning from migration.

Do you have a favorite local bird? 

The Wrentit. It’s the only member of its family in North America with the rest of the species found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Its call is pretty distinctive, like the sound of dropping a ping pong ball.

What’s the best way to attract more birds to your yard?

Give them some water, making sure to frequently change it to prevent mosquitoes. Provide spots for them to perch and nest in terms of shrubs and trees. I’ve been able to see 80 species in my one yard over the past 20 years.

Inti tanager

The Inti tanager (photo courtesy of Kevin Burns)