Knowing your garden birds is every bit as fulfilling as knowing your garden plants. It takes about the same amount of effort, but requires a decent pair of binoculars in place of a spade, and an introductory guide to the birds of your region in place of a seed catalogue.
Although birding without binoculars is entirely possible (using the naked eye or birding by ear), it's not recommended for the beginner. A decent, compact pair of binoculars, which can usually be purchased new for around £19 to £32, will suffice. Learn how to focus the binoculars for your eyes, and practice quick-draw focusing. In this technique, you keep focused on your quarry while quickly bringing the binoculars to your eyes. This is tricky, but practice will prevent frustration when you begin observing quick-moving birds.
Initially, a foldable guide that lists the top 20 to 30 most common bird species for a region or habitat will help you distinguish most species in your garden. Another option is a region-based bird guide; for example, birds of the Eastern or Western United States, which will facilitate identification by eliminating many of the species that are unlikely to be found in your area.
At first sight of a new bird, with or without binoculars, the best thing to do is really observe it. Before running to grab your field guide, notice its size, shape, the way it moves and any distinguishing colours or marks (known as "field marks"). For many birds, the shape and size of the bill and the type of feet can prove important in identification. For example, vireos and warblers, small songbirds that flit quickly among the tree leaves, can often be distinguished at a distance primarily on the basis of bill size.
One of the best ways to both attract and distinguish birds is by focusing on habitat. Many birds are habitat specialists, and you will quickly find that habitat is a great way to eliminate species when trying to identify a bird. For example, if you live in or near the woods, a small brown sparrow singing in your shrubs is unlikely to be a savannah sparrow, which nests in open grasslands. Developing key habitat components in your garden, such as water, food plants and nest boxes, will also increase the diversity of species attracted to your yard. The National Wildlife Federation offers guidance on designing backyard wildlife habitat.
Bird feeders are great ways to attract birds, however they do require maintenance to avoid becoming vectors of disease or attractions to predators, such as cats, and parasites, such as brown-headed cowbirds. Bird conservation organisations such as PRBO Conservation Science and Cornell University offer many excellent resources guiding this practice.