How to start birding in Ohio

The Red-breasted Merganser lands in open water during migration. Lake Erie is the most important staging area in North America for these ducks heading for the wintering grounds on the coasts. Mergansers’ legs are set far back on their body, fueling their dives. But that does mean they have to get off to a good start on the water to be able to take off; they are unable to take off from the earth. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

There are over 800 species of birds in the United States and over 400 species of birds have been recorded in Ohio. No matter the time of year, the birding opportunities in Ohio are endless.

Bird watchers can enjoy a great diversity with opportunities to see birds of all shapes, sizes and colors in a wide variety of habitats across Ohio throughout the year.

Learn to find and identify different types of birds in Ohio, and start birding regardless of the season.

To start


  • Binoculars
  • Field guide
  • Newspaper

Choose a field guide. Make sure you choose an up-to-date, well-credited identification guide. An up-to-date guide is essential as bird populations are constantly changing and new species are identified. You may also want to consider choosing a guide specific to your area if you are new to limiting the number of species listed in the guide so it doesn’t get as overwhelming.

Applications and electronic guides are an alternative option to a field guide. There are both advantages and disadvantages of using electronic options instead of printed field guides. You will need to consider ease of use in areas with poor cell phone service. Screen size, dead batteries, and damaged devices are other considerations for fully relying on electronics to provide identifying information. However, there are several reliable free guides that include both sights and sounds to help identify birds.

Here are some great electronic resources for birding:

  • – includes free comprehensive Audubon Bird Guide and bird conservation information. A mobile application is also available for download.
  • eBird – allows users to explore sightings and hotspots by allowing them to search by species and region. The eBird app is supported by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • HuntFish OH mobile app – The Ohio Wildlife Division provides maps of public birding areas on its mobile app.
  • iBird – allows users to track bird sightings and store information such as date and location using a mobile device.
  • Merlin application – Free identification app via The Cornell Lab.
  • Lake Erie Bird Watching Trail – Visit to explore 88 birding sites along Lake Erie.
  • Sibley app – A digital field guide with audio recordings.
  • Song detective – identifies the bird songs of the 200 most common North American land birds.

Your backyard. Your garden is a good place to start. This allows you to familiarize yourself with the birds in your area and provides identification practice. You can increase your chances of seeing different birds by setting up a bird feeder in a location with good visibility. Birds are most active before dawn and at dusk, so your viewing opportunities are increased during these times.


Birds’ physical and behavioral traits help them find mates, find and eat food, and survive both inclement weather and predators. They also help scientists group birds based on their shape, size, colors, and behavior. And they can help you identify birds.

  1. Evaluate the shape and size of the bird. This is the first step in reducing the type of bird down. You can see different shapes of birds using Cornell Lab’s All About Birds Tool. Does your mysterious bird have a long neck, long beak and legs? Click on the silhouette of the heron to display a list of potential species. Does it have the strong, curved beak of a raptor? Click on the hawks and hawks. After evaluating the general shape of the bird in question, estimate its size by comparing the size of the bird to a species that you can already identify. Is it closer in size to a sparrow, a crow or a goose? Also, assess the size of its tail, beak, and legs.
  2. Take note of the bird’s overall color pattern. Notice light or dark spots and distinctive patterns such as stripes or spots. If the bird is colorful, note where the colors are – chest, wings, head, back, etc.
  3. Observe the behavior of the bird. Determine if its posture is straight up and down or horizontal when perched on a branch. Observe how it flies – does it flap continuously or does it take off when it flies. Observe how he moves on the ground – does he walk or jump. In the water, observe if the bird dives completely in the water or if it jumps upside down with its butt in the air. This will help you narrow the list of possible species to just a few.
  4. Consider the location of the sighting. After determining and noting the shape, size, color, and behavioral traits of the bird, you can further refine using habitat, geographic region, and time of year. Different species of birds may share similar traits and live in different habitats, different parts of the country, or be present at different times of the year.

sick birds

Being able to identify sick birds is also important, especially if you have provided shared resources such as a birdbath or bird feeder.

The indicators include:

  • Blurry eyes
  • Missing / ruffled feathers
  • Dirty / tangled feathers
  • Puffy / crusty eyes
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis of the legs
  • Increased vocalization

If you notice sick birds, take the following actions:

  • Stop feeding birds and providing water in birdbaths.
  • Clean feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution.
  • Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds.
  • Wear disposable gloves if it is necessary to handle a bird.
  • Keep animals away from sick or dead birds.
  • To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and dispose of them with household garbage.

Where to look for birds

If you want to see specific birds, you need to start by paying attention to their habitat preferences throughout the year. Many birds migrate and at different times of the year different species inhabit Ohio.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division recently posted a few birding hotspots by season.


Tri-Valley Wildlife Reserve – This open pit recovered in Muskingum County is home to a variety of raptors during the winter. Golden eagles can be seen monitoring their prey. Bald eagles are also attracted to abundant water sources. You might also spot a coarse-legged falcon, a northern harrier, or a snowy owl. Most of these birds will be extinct by spring, making winter the best time to see them in the Tri-Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

The shores of Lake Erie – Thousands of ducks, gulls and other birds arrive from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland and the Arctic to winter in Lake Erie and other Great Lakes. Farm and dairy columnist Barb Mudrak detailed some of the activities in a recent column. You can also visit to explore 88 birding spots along Lake Erie and plan your next trip.


Battelle Darby Metropark – Battelle Darby Metropark spans 7,000 acres on the southwest side of Columbus with expanses of forests, meadows and wetlands offering bird watchers an array of species in the spring. Some of the species visitors can expect to see include yellow-breasted warblers, gallinules, sandhill cranes, vireos, grosbeaks, and yellow-and-black-billed cuckoos. Marsh birds are abundant in wetlands in the spring, and warblers are known to roam the riparian corridors along Big and Little Darby creeks that cross them during spring migration.


The coast of Lake Erie – Shorebirds are the first to migrate south and their migration begins in summer. Lake Erie is a popular stopping point for many of these species, including the killdeer, semipalmated plovers, American golden plovers, big yellow paws, and little yellow paws. Last summer, a pair of endangered piping plovers nested in Maumee Bay State Park. If you’re lucky, you might even see wood storks congregating in the swamps before they migrate south.


Caesar Creek State Park and Wildlife Preserve – Caesar Creek State Park and Wildlife Area covers 2,830 acres and includes one of the deepest lakes in Ohio. It attracts a variety of waterfowl, including gulls, loons, and sometimes rarer waterfowl. Bald eagles and ospreys hunt fish.



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