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Birding to use binoculars

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

Each winter our garden pond attracts many different types of birds. We keep a small area of open water in the pond, which the birds love. The past couple of weeks we have been inundated by robins. We also commonly see Eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, finches, and various sparrows each winter. Occasionally a coopers hawk swoops down to eat frogs. Although some birds stay year round, most of these are just stopping for rest and a drink during their migration elsewhere. Changes in our weather patterns have caused some bird migrations to change, thus robins in January.

Did you know that birding is the number one sport in America? According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are currently 51.3 million birders in the United States alone. If you aren't already, you too can be a birder. All you need is the will and some basic equipment.

Most people use binoculars to bird. The most common ones that I see are 7 x 35. The first number signifies magnification and the second number gives the size of the lens in millimeters. A bigger ratio of magnification to lens size gives a sharper image. Therefore an 8 x 42 is sharper than an 8 x 32; however the 8 x 42 is larger and more bulky to carry.

Regardless of the type of binoculars you have, you need to know how to use them. Binoculars need to be calibrated for each user, using the single adjustable eyepiece knob. Everyone's eyes are different, so they must be calibrated for your eyes. Once you know your number it will never change. For my binoculars, I use the 2+ setting, while my husband's setting is different.

Adjust the binoculars to fit your eye width using the center hinge. If you wear glasses, roll the rubber edge down or twist each eyepiece all the way in. Those without glasses need that extra space left alone. Finally, rotate the center wheel to focus both eyes on the subject in view.

If you are really serious about birding, you might also consider getting a spotting scope. Spotting scopes work from a farther distance away and often require a tripod for stability. Scopes magnify a subject 20x to 80x, compared to the 7x or 8x on most binoculars.

Birders typically carry a notebook to record their findings. Some also use their smartphone or tablet to play bird calls and look up identification characteristics.

Start building your bird life list today. One of my favorite birding websites is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at There you'll find directions on calibrating your binoculars and downloadable birding checklists for your location.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.