Binoculars for Birding

If you’re going outside to watch birds with young people, you might have some questions about how to identify birds and what tools you’ll need.  In this post, we’re sharing our ideas about how to obtain, use, and store a fundamental tool of bird watching: binoculars.

Keep in mind that your group can still be successful bird watchers without binoculars. For example, if you live in the city or have feeders to draw in birds, these feathered visitors might be easiest to see and count without binoculars!  However, if you’ve gone out bird watching and the young people in your group were frustrated since the birds were just too far away to identify, you might want to consider investing in binoculars. You might have questions ranging from “which kind should I buy, and how can I afford them?” to “how do we use and store them?” Here are some tips and guidelines for how to get started with using binoculars on your class bird walks:

Choose the right type of binoculars

Once you start shopping around for binoculars, you’ll see that they will be described by some combination of numbers, like 8×50 or 10×25. These numbers tell you the magnification (first number) and lens diameter (second diameter). So what kind of combination should you be looking for?

It’s easy to think the greater magnification is automatically better, but as it turns out a lower magnification might be best for beginners, especially young people. This is because increasing magnification reduces your field of view, which is the area that you see through your binoculars. This can make finding birds through the binoculars more difficult. We recommend a magnification of 7 or 8.

Lens diameter is less crucial, but should definitely be taken into consideration. Larger lenses will let in more light and provide a brighter, more detailed image, but do consider the fact that large lenses can get bulky and expensive. A lens size of between 25 and 40 should work well for you and your class.

You get what you pay for—so try to invest in quality!

There are plenty of cheap plastic binoculars out there that you can find for under $10.  However, while it is tempting to go for the cheapest option you can find, keep in mind that these cheaper binoculars are likely to break quickly and provide a very poor image. Instead, try to get the best quality binoculars you an afford, because it is more likely that you will be able to use them with your students year after year.  There are a number of good-quality options in the $100-price range, and some binoculars even come with a lifetime guarantee. Whatever brand you buy, consider: What is your budget?  And is it better for you to spend your budget on fewer but higher-quality binoculars this year?

In the Autumn 2013 issue of the Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird magazine, birding experts suggest good quality binoculars in five different price ranges. Their list of “budget binoculars” includes a pair that they say is particularly good for using with kids.

Storing and Sharing your BinocularsPhil kit

One BirdSleuth teacher purchased a set of binoculars so that each student could use a pair.  He found a big tool box on wheels and lined it with foam for extra padding. The wheels made for easy transportation… they can roll the case right out of the classroom to the school bus. When they go on their yearly wetland field trip, the case can fit on the bus floor between seats or up on an empty seat. He discovered that removing the binocular cases and lens caps helped him keep things simple (and avoided lost lens caps), and also allowed him to easily see the condition of each pair of binoculars without opening individual cases. Other teachers have etched numbers into the binoculars, caps, and cases and created a sign-out sheet so that each student is responsible for the safe return of all supplies.

Familiarize your students with the parts of binoculars and how to use them.

Binoculars are useful science tools, and students should know how to use and respect them.

Binocular videoNew! Share this helpful Cornell Lab video with your students on adjusting and using binoculars (on our YouTube channel).

You can also show your students the different parts of binoculars with this diagram. Knowing the names of the major parts will be important when you teach them how to adjust and use the binoculars.


bino diagram


Before you hand the binoculars out to the class, demonstrate the proper way to adjust them. Start by holding the binoculars up to your eyes and “bending” them up and down until the eye cups are both comfortably positioned over your eyes. This will allow the eyes to work together so you see one image rather than two. Next, adjust the diopter (if you have one) so that the binoculars are focused for your particular eyes. Everyone has different vision, and vision often even varies from one eye to the other! Here’s how to customize the focus for your eyes:

  1. Locate the diopter. It will be on either the left or the right eye cup, if you have one. It usually looks like a ring and is marked with a + and a – sign.
  2. Look at a stationary object through your binoculars while covering the lens that has the diopter with your hand.
  3. Use your other hand to adjust the center focus knob until the object is as clear and sharp-looking as possible.
  4. Cover the other lens (on the side without the diopter) with your hand and adjust the diopter knob until the object looks as clear as possible. Now you should be able to see objects clearly when looking through both lenses.

(These images and instructions are adapted from the Most Wanted Birds Resource Guide.)

Taking it Outside

Binoculars are extremely helpful for getting a closer look at a bird, but are not so helpful for first spotting one. Some students immediately try to raise the binoculars to their eyes and look around for birds, but that’s a mistake. To find a bird, it is best to start by looking for movement with your naked eyes so you have a full field of vision. Once you see a bird that you want to look at more closely, don’t take your eyes off it! Raise the binoculars to your eyes while keeping your sight focused on the bird. This will make it much easier to find the bird through your binoculars. With the bird in view, adjust the center focus by turning it left and right until the bird is clear.

A good practice exercise for your class is to print out a large image of a bird silhouette (about the size of a real bird) and do a little “target practice” with it. If you want, you can add some text to the page that your students will have to focus on in order to read. Have your students stand in a line and then walk about 15 feet away from them. Hold up the printed image of the bird silhouette and ask your students if they can focus on the image with their binoculars. Once everyone has focused on the silhouette, talk a few steps back and ask them to focus again. Then repeat, this time walking forward several steps. Once your students master this, they are ready to use their skills on some real birds—enjoy!

 Do you use binoculars with groups of young people? What tips and recommendations do you have?  Please add them as comments, below.






  1.  by  Shelby Brett

    Great tips! Thank you BirdSleuth!
    I love showing my students how to flip the bins upside down and use them as a hand lens. Try it with a witch hazel blossom. 🙂

  2.  by  Gary Sonnenberg

    Thanks for the ideas. Don’t forget to tell your students / children to listen for the birds too. Soon they’ll be able to identify them by their song and locate them more easily.

  3. Pingback: Birding as a Brain Break : Cornell Lab of Ornithology: BirdSleuth K-12

  4.  by  Derek Dewitt

    I want to take my kids out bird watching sometime soon, so thanks for the tips on choosing the right binoculars. I like that you suggest getting a pair of binoculars with a magnification of 7 or 8. I want to be able to clearly see the birds from a distance, so this looks like a good magnification number to look for.

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