Find Your Spark Bird to Inspire a Love of Birding

Updated: Jan. 29, 2024

A single sighting of your personal spark bird can ignite a passion for the outdoors and birding. Readers and experts share their spark birds.

What Is a Spark Bird?

harlequin duckCourtesy Madelynn Christine
Ken’s spark bird was the harlequin duck

Many of us have had a lifelong love of nature, but there’s usually a point in time that stands out in our memories. This is our spark moment. The concept is especially popular with birders. A spark bird doesn’t have to be rare to have an appeal. Many people admit that they never paid much attention to birds, overlooking even the most abundant ones, until their spark moment captured them.

My own spark bird tale is quite atypical. When I was a teenager, a beautiful bird caught my attention. What makes my spark story unusual is that I didn’t actually see the bird itself. I was on a hike at a youth conservation camp in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

At the trailhead I noticed a sign with a duck on it. I assumed it was a rare species, because the sign said the state game and fish department was interested in sightings. I’d been duck hunting with my dad, but I’d never seen a duck that looked quite like that one. It was slate gray with vibrant rusty sides and bold white markings along the head and body. I thought it was stunning.

The rest of the week I was distracted by thoughts of that duck. Though I didn’t find one on that trip, my spark had been ignited. For the first time ever, birds were on my radar—and at that moment I became a birder. The experience even shaped my future career, pushing me toward the field of wildlife biology.

Spark Birds Inspire Nature Lovers

Spark birds may be flashy, like bright-red cardinals, yellow goldfinches and blue indigo buntings, or they may be relatively plain, fading into the background. Perhaps it’s an interesting behavior that catches your eye, or maybe a friend helps you identify a species for the first time. No matter the scene, spark moments are life-changing events. Spark birds ignite curiosity and fuel the desire to learn more about nature, leading you to a lifetime of birdwatching.

If you haven’t met your spark bird yet, don’t worry. It’ll come when you’re ready. And until then, you’ll sure have a lot of fun looking!

Follow these top 10 dos and donts of birding in the field.

Nature Lovers Share Their Spark Birds

Enjoy these experiences from birding experts and Birds & Blooms readers to learn how they got hooked on birds.

spark bird

Laura Erickson
Author and naturalist, Duluth,Minnesota

My spark bird was a dead one, lying feet up on a sidewalk in downtown Chicago in 1968. It was exquisite, a tragic yet beautiful mystery: a tiny bird with an olive-brown back, white underside with black spots, white eye rings and an orange cap outlined with black. A few years later my mother-in-law gave me a field guide for Christmas. I opened it right to the page with the ovenbird. This little book was my passport to a whole new world. That ovenbird sparked a lifetime of love for birds.

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spark birdsAlexis Hayes

Jeffrey Gordon
Former president of the American Birding Association, Colorado Springs, Colorado

In 1977, I was looking at the birds visiting our feeders, something I’d been doing casually for years. I knew the regular visitors—house finches, towhees, nuthatches and so on. And of course I knew goldfinches. I knew they were yellow in the spring and duller in the fall, and that the females were heavily streaked below. But that day, while looking in my field guide, it hit me. Those streaky birds weren’t goldfinches at all. They were pine siskins. The sense of discovery was electric. In that moment, I became a birder.

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spark birds

Rachel Butek
2010 Young Birder of the Year, Colfax, Wisconsin

The bird that truly sparked my interest was one special song sparrow. If I had known it was a song sparrow, it might not have made a difference. The intrigue of the unknown drew me to an old field guide. I waded through the pages of sparrows and finally identified my bird. I was tickled to find something so delightful right outside my window! That first childlike delight of discovering something new still drives my birding today.

See more types of sparrow birds to look for.

spark birdsRamona Doebler

Jen St. Louis 
Elmira, Ontario

I went a little nuts when I saw reports of snowy owls in our area. Not 20 minutes into our search, we spotted a female. That started my obsession with bird photography. I’ve started planning my feeders and gardens according to what birds I can lure in. To date, we’ve had 59 species in our yard!

Discover the amazing types of owls in North America.

spark birds

Sharon Sauriol
Macomb, Michigan

Chickadees always visit my feeders. They chatter so sweetly and are not afraid to come close to me. One day I held out my hand with a small piece of walnut in it. I was surprised when I felt the sweetest little peck as one of the chickadees took the treat from my fingertips. This experience changed things for me. I have been a birder ever since.

Junco vs chickadee: here’s how to tell the difference.

spark birdsRoland Jordahl

Tiffany Hawkins
Porter Ranch, California

One spring afternoon, I looked out the window at my new bird feeder and saw a strange visitor. I eventually learned it was a house finch. That bird opened up a whole new world to me. Birdwatchers have a term for birds that they see for the first time: lifers. Although my life list has since grown to 299 species, the most important lifer I ever saw was that little house finch. It truly was a life-changing spark bird.

Next, check out our guide on how to buy birding binoculars.