How to start birding in Ohio

Red-breasted mergansers
Red-breasted mergansers land on open water during migration. Lake Erie is the most important staging area in North America for these ducks as they head for wintering grounds on the coasts. The mergansers' legs are set far back on their bodies, powering their dives. But that means they must get a running start on the water in order to get airborne; they are unable to take off from land. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

There are more than 800 species of birds in the U.S. and more than 400 bird species have been recorded in Ohio. Regardless of the time of year, the birding opportunities in Ohio are boundless.

Birders can enjoy plenty of diversity with opportunities to view birds of all shapes, sizes and colors in a wide variety of habitats across Ohio throughout the year.

Learn how to find and identify different types of birds in Ohio and get started birding regardless of the season.

Getting started


  • Binoculars
  • Field guide
  • Journal

Choosing a field guide. Make sure you choose an up-to-date, well-credited identification guide. An up-to-date guide is essential because bird populations are constantly changing and new species are being identified. You might also consider choosing a guide specific to your region if you are just starting out to limit the number of species listed in the guide so it’s not as overwhelming.

Apps and eGuides are an alternate option to a field guide. There are both pros and cons to using electronic options instead of printed field guides. You’ll have to consider usability in areas with poor cell phone service. Screen size, dying batteries and damaged devices are other considerations for relying entirely on electronics to provide identification information. However, there are several reliable free guides available that include both pictures and sounds to help identify birds.

Some good electronic resources for birding include:

  • – includes the comprehensive and free Audubon Bird Guide and information about bird conservation. A mobile app is also available for download.
  • eBird – lets users explore sightings and hotspots by allowing them to search by species and region. The eBird app is backed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • HuntFish OH Mobile App – The Ohio Division of Wildlife provides maps to 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 App – Free identification app via The Cornell Lab.
  • Lake Erie Birding Trail – Visit to explore 88 birding locations along Lake Erie.
  • Sibley App – A digital field guide with audio recordings.
  • Song Sleuth – identifies the bird songs of the 200 most common North American land birds.

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


The physical and behavioral traits of birds help them find mates, find and eat food and survive both weather and predators. They also help scientists group birds based on shape, size, color patterns and behavior. And they can help you identify birds.

  1. Assess the shape and size of the bird. This is the first step in narrowing the type of bird down. You can view different bird shapes by using The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds tool. Does your mystery bird have a long neck, bill and legs? Click on the heron silhouette to view a list of potential species. Does it have the powerful, curved beak of a raptor? Click hawks and falcons. After you’ve assessed the overall shape of the bird in question, estimate its size by comparing the size of the bird to a species you can already identify. Is it closer in size to a sparrow, crow or goose? Additionally, evaluate the size of its tail, beak and legs.
  2. Take note of the bird’s overall color pattern. Notice any light or dark patches and any distinguishing patterns such as stripes or spots. If the bird is colorful, note where the colors are located — breast, wings, head, back, etc.
  3. Observe the bird’s behavior. Determine whether its posture is straight up and down or horizontal when it’s perched on a branch. Observe how it flies — does it continuously flap or does it soar when it flies. Observe how it moves on the ground — does it walk or hop. In the water, observe whether the bird dives completely into the water or does it bob upside down with its butt in the air. This will help you narrow a list of possible species to just a few.
  4. Consider the location of the sighting. After you’ve determined and noted the shape, size, color and behavior traits of the bird you can narrow further by using habitat, geographic region and time of year. Different species of birds can share similar traits and live in different habitats, different parts of the country or be present at different times of the year.

Sick birds

It’s also important to be able to identify sick birds, especially if you’ve provided shared resources such as a birdbath or bird feeder.

Indicators include:

  • Unfocused eyes
  • Missing/fluffed feathers
  • Dirty/matted feathers
  • Swollen/crusty eyes
  • Seizures
  • Leg paralysis
  • Increased vocalization

If you notice any ill 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 pets away from sick or dead birds.
  • To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard them with household trash.

Where to look for birds

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

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife recently released some birding hotspots by season.


Tri-Valley Wildlife Area – This reclaimed strip mine in Muskingum County is home to a variety of raptors during the winter. Golden eagles can be seen overhead surveying for prey. Bald eagles are also drawn in by abundant water sources. You might also catch a glimpse of a rough-legged hawk, a northern harrier or a snowy owl. Most of these bird will be gone by spring, making winter the prime time to view them at Tri-Valley Wildlife Area.

Lake Erie shores – Thousands of ducks, gulls and other birds fly in from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland and the Arctic to winter on Lake Erie and other Great Lakes. Farm and Dairy columnist Barb Mudrak detailed some of the activity in a recent column. You can also visit to explore 88 birding locations 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 stretches of forest, prairie and wetlands offering birders an array of species in the spring. Some of the species visitors can expect to see include yellow-breasted chats, gallinules, sandhill cranes, vireos, grosbeaks and yellow- and black-billed cuckoos. Marsh birds are abundant in the wetlands during spring and warblers have been known to travels the riparian corridors along the Big and Little Darby Creeks that flow through during spring migration.


The Lake Erie Coast – Shorebirds are the first to begin migrating south and their migration begins in the summer. Lake Erie is a popular stopping point for many of these species, including killdeer, semipalmated plovers, American golden plovers, greater yellow legs and lesser yellow legs. Last summer a pair of endangered piping plovers nested at Maumee Bay State Park. If you’re lucky, you might even see wood storks congregated in the marshes before their migration south.


Caesar Creek State Park and Wildlife Area – Caesar Creek State Park and Wildlife Area covers 2,830 acres and includes one of Ohio’s deepest lakes. It attracts a variety of water-loving birds including gulls, loons and occasionally more rare waterfowl. Overhead bald eagles and ospreys hunt for fish.



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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, Ohio, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.



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