Using a wildlife camera (trail camera or birdcam) is a great way to get candid photos or videos of the activity at your backyard bird feeder. Equipped with a motion-sensor, these cameras capture up close and personal details of wildlife that only occurs when we are away.
If you want to see examples of live bird cams, see How to Watch Live Bird Cams from Around the World.
Using Automatic Wildlife Cameras in the Garden
First, here’s some footage from my bird cam, taken in late winter and early spring in snow, rain, and sun:
Candid Footage from My Backyard Bird Cam
Wildlife cameras are automated photo and video cameras cased in weather-proof housing, suitable for outdoor use. You set them up and they take footage while you are away. The sensors trigger the shutter when objects move in the target range.
There are many different types of wildlife cameras, depending on what you want to record, ranging from deer, bears, or other critters wandering down a trail to close-ups at bird feeders.
In general, these cameras allow a range of settings: single photos, a burst of several photos, and short videos. Some also record audio, others do not.
Many work in daylight only, but, if you’re keen on getting footage of nocturnal animals, there are also models with night settings.
The images are captured on SD cards which you can then save to your computer. The camera I’m currently testing (below) also has a phone app with short range remote access and control (25 feet). Others also have Wi-Fi capabilities.
I have owned several of these cameras over the years, and while I do find them worthwhile and keep using them, they are not without their frustrations and limitations. With the cost below that of a good, basic pocket camera, it’s best to lower your expectations and enjoy what they can provide.
Keep reading and I’ll give you some helpful pointers for choosing a wildlife camera and share some tips.
Attracting Wild Birds to Your Garden
- Avoid the use of any products toxic to birds and their food sources including caterpillars.
- Grow plants, trees and shrubs for habitat and be messy: dead and decaying things nourish life.
- Keep pets out of your garden.
- Choose plants that provide food, nectar, or habitat for other living things.
- Birdhouses: Use as decoration only.
- Nesting Boxes: Choose species-specific designs.
- Bird Feed: Provide nutritious food and fresh, clean water.
- Bird Feeders: Clean frequently. Remove feeders immediately if you notice any sign of disease or problems like salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, or avian pox are reported in your area.
TIP: Use a motion-sensitive wildlife camera in your garden to see what goes on when you’re not there.
Related: How to Remove Skunk Odor
My Current Birdcam
The birdcam I’m currently using/testing is the Bird Photo Booth. It’s basically a modified GoPro that sits in a case fitted with a macro lens for close-up pictures.
In the photo above, it’s the black and silver box with the small birdseed bowl. The rest is my custom built stuff.
I found the setup too fussy to deal with on a daily basis so I build a large birdhouse to enclose the whole thing and make it easier to change the SD card each day via a door at the back.
The front of the bird house has a built-in mesh tray for birdseed in addition to the little silver cup that comes with the unit.
It does take good footage when it works, but it doesn’t always shoot when it should.
Also, it does not adapt well to changing light conditions, can be slow to trigger (so I often have video of birds flying away) or doesn’t work at all, and the exposure usually needs fixing when I’m editing the videos.
If you just want good footage without fuss/inconsistent behavior, use one of the wildlife trailcams shown above.
Tips for Choosing a Wildlife Camera
1Photos, Video and Audio
- Do you want photos, video and audio, or all of these? Many have settings to allow both but may do one better than the other.
- Does image quality matter? Some just want to know what’s lurking out there, others want good photos.
- Will you want to shoot up close or at a distance? Detection ranges vary from 1 to 2 feet to up to 100 feet depending on the camera.
Keep in mind that these are fairly inexpensive cameras and expectations should be managed accordingly. Lots of people use them on public trails and there is always the risk that they will be stolen or damaged. That’s easier to tolerate when you’ve spent $150 instead of $500.
Look beyond the megapixels. I’ve seen several reviewers mention that the actual megapixels these cameras deliver are much lower than the advertised amounts. It’s not something I’ve tested, but I would suggest reading reviews and find out what quality users are actually getting versus what is promised.
I like to use high resolution video (HD 1920×1080 or 4K) at all times. This way, I get very good quality video, suitable for YouTube, and can take screen grabs to use as photos.
If quality is important to you, also check reviews for how well the camera adapts to light changes. Some of these cameras do fine in moderate sunlight but may struggle in bright or dim light.
My current camera does best on overcast days but I still almost always need to adjust the images in Photoshop (photos) or Premiere Pro (video).
How fast the shutter releases (and releases again) may or may not matter much depending on what you’re recording. A bear ambling on a trail is (usually) slow-moving. A bird swooping in to land on a bird feeder benefits from a fast camera, higher resolution, and/or slow-motion settings.
This is a big one for me. I’ve owned five of these cameras and each one had different power requirements and some of them were terrible battery hogs, which gets pricey.
If you’re placing the camera in a remote area, batteries are going to be required. Check reviews for expected battery life and whether rechargeable batteries can be used.
If you plan to use the camera in your garden, choose one that can hook up to an outdoor electrical outlet.
Want to capture nocturnal animals? Make sure night shooting is a feature and the range is suitable. One of my first wildlife cameras was better at night-time pictures than daytime ones. It was fun to see how many critters made use of our garden each night. I also managed to get candid pictures of a human intruder one night.
This is where these cameras can drive a sane person crazy. The menu systems can be clunky, slow, sometimes frustrating, and illogical.
Also, some menus do not retain their settings when the batteries or SD cards are changed which is somewhat annoying.
If you’re placing your camera in the wild, a good onscreen playback feature is welcome so you can check footage before switching out the SD card to be sure you’ve got good stuff there.
Wildlife cameras store their footage on SD cards. The maximum capacity of the card varies between brands and models. This could be 8gb, 16 gb, 32gb, and a few accommodating 64gb. This makes a big difference when you are getting HD video footage over days or weeks. You don’t want the card to fill up early.
Some cameras can also transmit images by Wi-Fi but I’ve not had good luck with this.
9Design and Construction
Wildlife cameras are (mostly) encased in waterproof or water-resistant housing. It’s usually a hard plastic (or similar material) case, approximately 10-inches tall, by four inches deep and wide. They are often camo to blend in with the environment. The camera is built-in and the casing opens for access to the settings, batteries, and disk storage.
If your wildlife cam is going to be in drastic conditions (heat, cold, rain, snow, wind), check the reviews. You want to be sure the casing is tough enough and the camera will function in various conditions.
As shown above, I build my unit into a rustic birdhouse to make it more stable, better protected from the elements, and easier to change the SD card each day.
Overall, you get what you pay for, but there are always exceptions where some lower-priced units out-perform more expensive ones.
I think it comes back to making sure you’re getting the features or performance you want within a budget you are fine with.
I’m not sure how old this articles is, but it has some helpful reviews of various trail cams.
Despite some limitations, I hope you’ll try one of these cameras. Personally, I love seeing what’s happening in my garden when I am not there.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛