What Ohio bird makes a call that sounds like: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” What bird mimics the scream of the red-tailed hawk? How about a bird that meows?*

Learning the sights and songs of our state’s avian residents can transform your experience of the outdoors, as suddenly the background chatter of birds becomes as recognizable as a familiar melody. Birding can even be addictive: the more birds you learn, the more fun it becomes to identify new calls. These tips will help you get started.

First, get a field guide. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in Ohio. Fortunately, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has a resource page dedicated to helping you learn our state’s birds. They also publish a variety of field guides and bird call CDs. A good one to start with is “Common Birds of Ohio.”

Observe the common birds in your neighborhood. Throughout Ohio, a thriving population of robins, cardinals, blue jays, crows, mourning doves and more will readily provide you with bird identification practice. Particularly in urban and suburban areas, these birds are populous and not at all shy, and matching names and calls to the feathered characters you’re used to seeing is a fun introduction to birding.

Learn bird songs. This step becomes especially helpful as you branch out into identifying more secretive birds than the brash crow or ubiquitous robin. Some birds, such as common yellowthroats, are seldom seen, but their calls will alert you to their presence. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when biologists count birds in the field, the majority of them are heard, not seen. The CD accompanying “Common Birds of Ohio” is indispensable in learning to match songs with birds.

Feed the birds. You can greatly increase the number of avian visitors to your backyard by providing food, water and shelter. This can be as simple as putting out bird seed and installing a bird bath, then waiting to see who shows up. You can create an even more welcoming environment for birds by planting native plants and halting chemical treatments of your yard. Native plants (and the insects that eat them) attract birds as a food and shelter source, and a chemical-free yard is much safer for feathered friends.

Invest in gear. If you’re ready to take the next step, a good pair of binoculars will help you identify birds from far afield. The Audubon Society has a page dedicated to helping you find the best binoculars for birding. And bringing along a camera to document your sightings can add an artistic element to your quest.

There’s an app for that. If you have a smartphone, birding apps can help you identify a bird while you’re in the field. Check out this review of popular birding apps from the Nature Conservancy blog. Be considerate, though, of other birders—and the birds themselves!—when playing calls in the field. Hearing calls from phantom rivals can be stressful and even downright harmful for birds.

Start a diary. Writing down the types and numbers of birds you spot throughout your neighborhood and on birding trips is a fun way to track your progress. As your records grow, you will learn a great deal about the preferred habitats of different species, and the time of day or year you’re most likely to see them. This record is also useful for tracking year-to-year variations in bird populations.

Make friends. Birders are a welcoming group, and eager to share their knowledge. By spending a few hours with seasoned birders, you can learn more than you would in a week on your own. Resources for finding other birders include Ohio’s Birding Network, the area chapters of Audubon Ohio, and state and local nature preserves.

Be an advocate for birds. Wild birds need our help, both to protect the places they call home and to promote their beauty and importance to other people. You can start by sharing with friends and family the things you’ve learned about birds and their role in local ecosystems. If you travel to nature preserves to go birding, tell the local restaurants or businesses you visit why you’re in town. If you’re interested in volunteering, check with nonprofit organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Ohio, or your local or state parks. The more Ohioans there are who appreciate birds, the more welcoming our state will be for these winged wonders.

*A hooted “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” means there’s a barred owl in the vicinity. Hear a hawk-like scream but there’s no hawk to be seen? It could be that mischievous blue jay hopping along the branch above. And the bird who meows is aptly named: it’s the gray catbird.  — Meredith Southard

An animal lover since she could shriek the word “doggie,” Meredith Southard has written for national and statewide publications on topics such as wildlife rehabilitation and rescue, conservation dogs, and the animals of Ohio’s wetlands. On warm spring nights she can be found traipsing around vernal pools with a flashlight, looking for salamanders and frogs.

Photo Credit: Darren Lewis