Bird-watching became an even more popular hobby over the course of the pandemic, which means you very likely have a birder in your life to buy for. But as we’ve learned from searching for gifts for gamers, hikers, and knitters, actually finding the right thing for someone with a very specific hobby can be a tall order, especially if it’s not also your very specific hobby. So we asked a dozen birders across New York state and beyond about the best gifts for bird lovers that you can give to any avian enthusiast in your life, from binoculars for birders of all levels to gear that will bring birds to your backyard.
Binoculars are a bird-watching must, and “every serious birder should have a good second pair, to take a friend birding or to quickly replace a lost or damaged main pair,” according to David Barrett, creator and manager of Manhattan Bird Alert. He recommends a 10x42 pair for their excellent optical quality (at 10x42, they have 10x magnification and 42-millimeter-diameter front lenses), like this pair from Nikon.
Juita Martinez, a Ph.D. student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette studying evolutionary and environmental biology, also uses 10x42 binoculars but says that “folks can start out with an 8x42 pair.” Martinez, who got into birding five years ago while working at the Richardson Bay Audubon Center, says she has been using one pair of Vortex binoculars the whole time. “I beat them up when I’m in the field, and somehow they’re not scratched. They’ve stood the test of time.”
Robert DeCandido — also known as Birding Bob, the leader of inexpensive bird-watching walking tours in Central Park — likes these waterproof Sightron binoculars because he can “wear them all day” without feeling any strain on his neck. They conveniently come with a carrying case, neck strap, and lens cover, too.
In the $200 price range, this pair of binoculars from Athlon Optics have a slightly larger lens diameter and ESP dielectric coating, which Steven John — a birder and Strategist contributor — says delivers “excellent contrast and color fidelity, helping you see the often-minute patterns and hues on a bird’s feathers.” Plus, unlike other binoculars, this pair from Athlon Optics are better protected against water damage and fogging (normal risks during birding), since their chambers are filled with water-repelling argon.
Three of our experts recommend springing for a pair of Swarovski EL Binoculars. Chase Mendenhall, curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, calls them “the Porsche of optics,” and says they’re ideal for “lowlight warbler watching.” Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says that “a really good pair of binoculars” like these “will be a game changer for anyone even mildly interested in birds.” Experienced bird-watchers may want higher magnification, but a 7x or 8x pair is usually sufficient — especially with really high-end models like this, according to Farnsworth.
Scopes, cameras, and other gadgets
“This inexpensive mount lets you turn your phone and scope or binoculars into a zoom camera,” says Barrett. So-called “digi-scoping” or “digi-binning” is the easy way to take high-quality photos or videos of birds without having to buy a camera and long lens, he explains.
Although Martinez also likes taking photos with a phone scope, she says a camera is a good gift option for photographers and beginner birders alike. “Birds move fast, especially if they’re hunting, so if you can get a snapshot in the field, then you can see all the details and ID the bird later at a slower pace,” she explains. Martinez has a Nikon D5200, which you can buy used online, but for another affordable beginner model, John recommends a Wi-Fi enabled Canon PowerShot.
For a three-in-one item, these binoculars come with a phone mount and carrying strap, meaning you can capture images while birding, which John says are comparable to those taken on a DSLR camera. “The optics are gorgeous. The image quality is comparable to the expensive brand like Bushnell,” he adds.
If the birder on your list already has a good pair of binoculars (or two), Farnsworth suggests buying them a spotting scope, which is basically a tiny telescope that offers much greater magnification. We like this easy-to-carry spotting scope from best-rated telescope brand Celestron, which comes in different styles.
“Birding can be device-intensive, and require frequent use of apps for bird alerts, identification, playback, list-keeping, and communication,” according to Barrett. He recommends buying the birder on your list a portable charger like this so that they never run out of power out in the field.
Birding books and field guides
For birders of color, Corina Newsome — who co-organized Black Birders Week to celebrate black birders and nature explorers in the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and Christian Cooper’s wrongful harassment by a white woman in Central Park while he was birding — recommends reading the writing of Dr. J. Drew Lanham, an author, poet, and wildlife biologist. Newsome specifically told our colleagues at the Cut that she refers to Lanham’s article “Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher,” but for Lanham’s in-depth exploration of land, nature, and race, consider reading his memoir, The Home Place.
Lanham is also an award-nominated poet, and his first collection of poems, Sparrow Envy, explores similar themes of birds, the wild, and race, through the medium of poetry.
“A field guide is a great gift; they’re available for countless locations around the world, from the obvious to the extremely esoteric,” says Farnsworth. His go-to is the National Geographic guide, but he also likes Peterson’s — his first field guide, which he still has “a soft spot for.” This volume’s heft and detailed illustrations make it a perfect coffee-table book for your bird lover to peruse on their own, or show off to friends.
This book of pigeon photography is a “gorgeous paean to New York City’s ubiquitous avian inhabitant,” says Candice Odell of the Wild Bird Fund. Its full-color pages offer a rich exploration of the history (and beauty) of the city’s unofficial (and often underappreciated) bird.
Dennis W. Hrehowsik, president of the Brooklyn Bird Club, recommends the warbler guide, which comes in the form of a book, an app, and a trifold laminated document. Adams agrees, noting the “essential” guide is one that folks can “study throughout the year to prep for warblers in their tricky fall plumage.”
Two of our experts also recommend this Sibley field guide, which Mendenhall calls “the quintessential bird guide for all ages and skill levels.” It’s also available as an app that plays the calls of individual birds. “This is the classic field guide, with updated photos and text, to all birds in the New York area — and many more,” adds Barrett.
In lieu of a field guide, both Martinez and wildlife biologist and BlackAFinSTEM co-organizer Danielle Belleny recommend gifting an app because it’s not an extra thing to carry around. “Since you already have your phone in hand, you might as well consolidate all your information into one place and use an app,” says Belleny, who notes that her favorites for all levels are the free Merlin and Audubon apps, which help users identify birds based on descriptions and photos. For mid-to-advanced birders, both she and Martinez recommend the Sibley Birds app’s second edition, which lets birders “compare two birds next to each other, which you can’t do in other birding apps” — a feature Martinez says is “well worth the $20.”
As Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club president and 10,000 Birds blogger Tristan Lowery explains, while field guides and online birding resources are great for discovering when and where to find birds, “it can sometimes be tough to translate that information into birding success when visiting a location for the first time.” For birders in New York state, he recommends this “thoughtful and detailed” guide to more than 80 birding hot spots. “Short of being guided in person by a knowledgeable local, it’s the best way to get the lay of the land,” he says.
And for New York–based birders with a special interest in conservation, Lowery likes this “dramatic” account of how the Empire State “was a main stage for the astonishing comebacks of the iconic Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon from the brink of extinction in the 20th century.” The book also describes ongoing efforts to save birds still at risk.
With the right gear, you don’t have to go far in order to bird-watch. Martinez, who started birding in her own backyard in Louisiana, says having a bird feeder helps beginner birders “practice with their binoculars because you already know where the bird is.” She recommends starting with an open platform feeder because “birds of any size can land on it.”
When we spoke to six birders about the best birdhouses for attracting birds to their backyards, all of them agreed that decorative birdhouses are actually less inviting to birds than a sturdy wooden option — like this cedar model, which specifically attracts bluebirds.
For hummingbird enthusiasts, Mendenhall suggests an elegant hanging “glass feeder that will catch the sun but be out of reach from ants.” We like the rainbow-speckled design on this recycled-glass feeder.
If you’re going to gift a feeder, consider adding in some seed to attract a variety of species, like this best-rated pick from Wager’s which one reviewer says attracts about 20 birds at a time.
Growing native plants is another way to attract birds to your garden, says Belleny. “They have seeds or berries that certain birds like to eat, or leaves that the bird might use for their nest,” she explains, adding, “It’s the idea of building a habitat: You don’t have to go out and find birds; you can bring them to where you are.” Since native plants differ by area, Belleny recommends using Audubon’s Native Plant Database, which allows you to find plants by ZIP code and specifies which birds they attract. In Brooklyn, black-eyed Susans — which are sold at many local nurseries or in seed form online — are known to attract birds including wrens and orioles.
“If you don’t want to spend money or you have someone on your list whose love language is quality time, try making a DIY, upcycled bird feeder or birdbath. It doesn’t take too long, and you can use items from your recycling,” says Belleny. An upturned terra-cotta planter is all you need for a DIY birdbath, or a plastic bottle can serve as a bird feeder. “Speaking from experience, when squirrels raid the feeder, the glass bottle will fall and break,” Belleny notes.
Bird-watching memberships and subscriptions
Many of our experts recommended buying the bird-lover in your life a membership to a local birding club. “What better gift for a birder?” asks Tod Winston, birding guide and research associate at NYC Audubon. If the person on your list is based in New York, NYC Audubon offers memberships starting at $25 which grant access to discounted classes, and are recognized by many affiliate clubs throughout the country.
If the bird lover on your list is also a coffee lover, then a subscription to Birds and Beans is the perfect way to combine their hobbies. “Growing plants well is important to birds,” according to Odell, and Winston adds that “Birds and Beans’s Smithsonian Bird-Friendly Coffee supports traditional shade-grown, organic coffee farms, which maintain the forest canopy and provide critical habitat for birds.” Subscriptions range from a 12-ounce bag of beans every 12 weeks to a two-pound bag every two weeks (and include options for decaf or espresso beans).
“Bird nerd swag is a fun gift” says Belleny, who recommends shopping at the Bird Collective, where a percentage of the sales from every product goes toward funding bird and wildlife preservation projects. Belleny recommends the brand’s patch club subscription, which sends a different bird-shaped patch every month for $7. “I have a patch stitched onto the back of my binocular harness,” she says.
Bird apparel and games
For a birding gift that also does good, both Belleny and Martinez like the merch at Bird Collective, which donates at least 20 percent of the profits from each product to a community-based bird-conservation organization.
“A rainy-day activity for the birding enthusiast,” this board game that Odell recommends allows bird watchers to pursue their hobby even when the weather does not. The game’s main objective is to collect the best birds to add to your aviary. It’s suitable for one to five players, takes about an hour to play, and is a favorite among birders for its attention to detail and lovely illustrations.
For the birding enthusiast who prefers puzzles to games, this 1,000-piecer features a National Geographic map of bird migration patterns across North and South America.
If the birder on your list is also a bird parent, consider gifting them this soothing hemp oil for their pet, which Monique Samuels — a Real Housewife of Potomac who is also parent to T’Challa, an African grey parrot — recommends to any parrot owner. Separation anxiety once caused T’Challa to pluck his own feathers off, but since Samuels started using this oil, “they have grown back and he’s much happier and calmer,” she says.
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