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How to start watching garden birds

Blue tit

Watching garden birds is a simple and fun nature project for children. Especially when ill or forced to stay at home.

With schools closed in many parts of the world, and some countries under lockdown, the coronavirus is forcing children all over the world to remain at home in order to stay safe and healthy.

With that in mind, Discovering Belgium is launching a new series of home-based nature projects for children. These simple, inexpensive projects can be conducted alone by older children, or accompanied by parents or grandchildren in the case of younger children. They take into consideration the social distancing rules, and the fact that children in some countries are not allowed to walk to the local city park.

They will cover a wide range of nature projects. Identifying garden birds. Building a bee hotel. Identifying wild flowers. Enjoying the sounds of nature. Looking at the moon and stars. Starting a nature table, Building a bird’s nestbox. And many more. Hopefully they may help some us stay sane during this coronavirus crisis.

We kick-off the series by watching garden birds.

A garden is a great place to encourage a child to watch birds. However, it could be that you live in an apartment block and don’t have a garden. So here’s a few words for you first.

How to watch birds from an apartment

Birdwatching is certainly possible from an apartment. A child could start by watching the birds from the apartment’s balcony. Birds can even be encouraged onto a balcony by putting up feeders, although I doubt if anyone wants to encourage city pigeons to make themselves feel at home there.

watching garden birds can start from an apartment!
All photos (C) Pixabay

If your apartment doesn’t have a balcony, watching birds is still possible. You might have a great view onto a square, a canal or a railway track, all of which are potential habitats for city birds. Perhaps you are at eye-level or even above some trees, and can see birds feeding among the branches. If you can’t see any greenery from your apartment window, and all you can see are other apartment blocks, there’s still something you can do to watch birds.

I don’t live in a city but have done a lot of walking in cities, and am surprised by how many birds I see just by looking up into the sky. These can be the usual city birds like starlings, jackdaws (below) and pigeons, but might be more interesting species.

watch city birds during the coronavirus lockdown

Peregrine falcons are now well established in a number of cities, where they nest in cathedral towers or on the top of office buildings. Especially in the spring and summer they can be seen hunting in the sky above the skyscrapers. Pigeons are the favorite prey on their menu! A city is actually one of the best places to see the incredible “stoop” of a peregrine falcon. This is when the bird dives down on a flying bird from a height and knocks it out of the sky. In doing so, it can reach speeds of over 240 km/hour (150 mph). It’s one of the most thrilling sights in the bird world. The peregrine falcon is actually the world’s fastest bird.

Look overhead for sighting of city peregrines

Most cities have parks with water, and their occupants — such as ducks, geese and herons — can often be seen flying from park to park looking for the best feeding patch. During migration periods in early spring and late autumn, you might discover that your city is on a migration route. It’s possible to look skywards and see migrating flocks of geese, cormorants, cranes and songbirds.

Migrating geese over Brussels


  • Attach a seed or nut holder to the balcony railings.
  • Purchase a seed or nut feeder with a suction pad and stick it to the outside of an apartment window (some ideas below; click on the photo for more info).
  • I provide more ideas on feeding garden birds here but these are best implemented in the winter.

How to watch birds in a garden

For those of you who live in a house with a garden, this is an excellent place to kick-off this hobby for a number of reasons. Gardens are extremely attractive to birds. The combination of trees, hedges, bushes, flowers, lawns, vegetable patches and ponds, topped off by occasional scatterings of free food, make gardens an extensive urban and suburban habitat for many birds.

Watching garden birds during the coronavirus lockdown

Every year I count the number of birds I see in my garden and can easily get over 100 birds of 20 or more different species.

Garden birdwatching also has the benefit that it can be done from inside a warm, dry, comfortable house: especially beneficial in this coronavirus crisis, or when it’s cold or raining outside. Moreover, you can often do it while sitting down in a comfortable chair. This makes it an ideal non-screen occupation for a child suffering from an illness or recovering after an operation.

So how to start birdwatching in your garden? It’s simple. It’s just a matter of a child looking intentionally for birds. At first they may not see anything, but soon there will be a flash of feathers and there on the lawn is a bird, and then another one, and another. Or they might spot a bird moving about in the trees at the bottom of the garden, or realize that there’s a couple of birds sitting on the fence. Then they might glance upwards and spot a flock of something flying overhead. And what’s that cheeping in the ivy climbing up the garden shed? The key lesson for us all to learn is to be patient and keep our eyes open!

Watching garden birds such as this robin is a fun hobby

At this point, you may think that neither you nor the child know the names of many birds so can’t identify particular species. But together you probably know the names of more birds than you realize.

  • In north-west Europe, these could be the blackbird, starling, sparrow, thrush, swallow, cuckoo, robin, magpie, wood pigeon and mute swan.
  • A North American list of ten commonly known birds could be the blue jay, mourning dove, cardinal, American robin, wren, sparrow, European starling, American crow, quail and vulture.
  • In Australia the birds you know and can name may include the kookaburra, Australian magpie, galah, sulphur-crested cockatoo, rainbow lorikeet, willy wagtail, lyrebird, butcher bird, budgerigar and emu.

So wherever you and the child are watching birds, you can probably put a name to the most common birds.

You might like to introduce something that has repeatedly proved to give children a wonderful “kick-start” to watching birds in the garden. In the USA it’s the Great Backyard Bird Count. In the UK it’s the Big Garden Birdwatch. Many countries all over the world run similar events in their own language.

Whatever it’s called and wherever it takes place, this event is open to anyone of any age. It involves spending an hour to count the birds that visit a garden during a certain weekend each year; usually in January or February. It’s a huge event. In the USA nearly 200,000 people take part. This number is eclipsed by the UK, which involves nearly half a million people. The information collected by the national organizations helps them monitor trends so they can understand how garden birds are doing.

Taking part in one of these national bird censuses is an excellent opportunity for a child to catch the birdwatching bug. The national organizations who run these counts produce attractive and clear identification guides and counting charts. Many schools also take part, so a child can participate in a group, which also increases the fun element. It’s too late this year if you live in the northern hemisphere, but in the southern hemisphere it’s still possible to take part in 2020. In Australia for example the Aussie Backyard Bird Count is between 19-25 October 2020.


  • Make a list of the birds in your area that you can already name and identify.
  • Keep an eye and ear open for news of your national garden or backyard bird count.
  • Make a list of the birds seen in the garden each year (ideas for children’s birdwatching log books below).

How to count garden birds

A few words on how to count birds. An easy mistake is to see a robin in the morning and another robin in the evening and think you’ve seen two robins. However, you have no way of knowing if they were two different robins or the same robin seen on two different occasions. Only record two robins if you see them at the same time.

The only deviation from this method is when counting male and female birds of the same species. For example, a morning observation of a group of 12 chaffinches may consist of 8 males and 4 females. A few hours later, a gang of 13 chaffinches may drop in, and be composed of 3 males and 10 females. You might be tempted to record 13 chaffinches seen that day, as that was the maximum number seen at any one time. However, in the course of that day, a maximum of 8 male chaffinches were seen at the same time, and 10 female chaffinches. This would mean the maximum number of chaffinches seen that day was 18, rather than 13.


  • Which species appear in the garden more frequently in the morning than in the afternoon or evening?
  • Note down the outside temperature. Is there a link between the number of birds visiting the garden and the temperature?
  • Do more or fewer birds appear when it’s raining or snowing? When it’s windy or really sunny?

This has given you a short introduction into watching garden birds. I hope it might help you and/or your children maintain sanity during this coronavirus lockdown. It may even lead to a new hobby. If so, sooner or later you’re going to be asked: “What’s that bird over there?” If you really haven’t got a clue, then stay tuned for a future coronavirus lockdown project! And as always, any questions on this or other topics, just ask.

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19 thoughts on “How to start watching garden birds”

  1. Good project, Denzil! If they don’t have bird feeders – – I still remember making edible decorations in grade school – – we 1st made small twig wreaths, and 2nd covered them with peanut butter (can you get that in Belgium?) and 3rd pressed them into a bowl of seeds. Thinking back, this was probably kind of a mess to clean up, but if you cover the kitchen table with newspaper, it shouldn’t be too disastrous, and in cool weather, I think they hold together pretty well. Then 4th, you need an adult to tie them to branches outside the windows. Attractive to squirrels, too, of course, which you may or may not like. There’s websites with instructions to make fancier decorations, using cookie cutters

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  4. Would love to see more variety of birds in our neighborhood but the most common are crows – noisy and annoying. Every once in while we’ll see a sweet mourning dove couple. And most special is that a few peregrine falcons have been appearing in our eucalyptus. Not only are they beautiful birds with a lovely whistling call, they keep the crows away.

    1. The peregrine falcons are certainly an impressive addition to your neighborhood Sharon. I wonder if they are nesting nearby? I’ve never seen one even in relative close-up; just way up in the sky. I can imagine the crows aren’t happy with them being there. Do they “mob” them and try to drive them away? Our local buzzards are always getting chased by irritating crows.

      1. We live in a eucalyptus woods, a fake forest of trees planted in straight rows, now grown extremely tall. The peregrines starting coming here to nest about 6 years ago, always in pairs. I can sometimes see them but they tend to hide in the thicker foliage way up high. Usually the crows stay away from the peregrines. Last spring, I heard a really loud ruckus caused by the crows and finally went out to see what the heck was going on. The crows were madly circling a tight group of trees, screeching constantly. I finally saw a lone falcon perched quietly on a branch, the obvious object of the crows’ attention. I think it was a male, and he was probably bravely distracting the crows from his female sitting somewhere on a nest. It went on at least a half hour, and that falcon didn’t budge. I tried to get a photo but it didn’t come out well as he was well concealed.

  5. The top picture looks like one sparrow feeding another. Is this the male feeding the female or the momma feeding a baby? I see birds doing this just yesterday and saw the one get the seed from the feeder and take it give it to the other one?

  6. Your photos are wonderful. Bird watching is one of my favorite activities, I feel relaxed and able to spend more time with the kids. Our perspective usually only shows pigeons, sometimes falcons, and migrating cranes, ….. I feel bird watching is amazing and I love those moments. Thanks for your sharing.

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