For the Birds Radio Program: New Binoculars

Original Air Date: Oct. 12, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about how she went about choosing a new pair of binoculars–and why you shouldn’t do it her way.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Mourning Dove)

Two weeks ago I spent my family’s entire discretionary income for 1989 on a single pair of binoculars. Paying over three months of my salary for a pair of lookers may seem like an extravagant and foolish thing to do. After all, not only are we out fully $800, but now, if I ever misidentify a bird, I’ll never again be able to blame it on my optics.

Then again, I may never make another mistake. My new glasses are Zeiss 10x40’s—the most exquisite tools I’ve ever touched, bringing in birds so close and sharp that it’s as if they were wearing name tags.

The best binoculars currently on the market are, without a doubt, Zeisses and the new elite 10x42’s made by Bausch and Lomb. Older models of Leitz Trinovids are in the same class, but most birders believe that the newer models, now called Leicas, lost a bit of their edge when their manufacturer was moved from West Germany to Portugal.

Leicas, Zeisses, and Bausch and Lombs elites list for well over a thousand dollars, which is one heck of a lot of moola. I don’t know if even Donald Trump would squander that much on a pair of binoculars. Fortunately, binoculars retailing for over a thousand dollars are not only unnecessary and even wasteful for most people, but are downright wrong for the kind of work most people want them to do, especially when you consider that one consumer group just rated Nikon’s 8x23 Venturer II’s the best binocular buy—and this model can be bought mail order for less than $90.00. And last year when I picked out a pair of binoculars for the finest mother-in-law in the universe, I chose a newer and better version of the exact same thing I myself have been using for 12 years, 8-power Minolta pocket binoculars.

Buying binoculars is a uniquely individual process. The set of issues that led me to choose the Zeisses are probably not important for most people. I spend my weekend mornings counting dickey birds that are about half-a-mile away—and my 37-year-old eyes are starting to feel it. The additional magnification that 10 power binoculars offer was a critical point for me, and the additional light that precision optics let in was also essential, since I start counting at or even before dawn.

I chose the Zeisses over the similarly priced Bausch and Lombs for two reasons: the Zeisses have a slightly wider field of view, which is important for counting flocks of birds, and the Bausch and Lombs are not yet available with rubberized armor. When you have three little children, a dog, a cat, and all kinds of birds under your roof, anything can happen to a pair of binoculars, and so for me that armor was essential. But armored glasses weigh more than non-armored ones, the Bausch and Lomb elites had a nicer focusing adjustment, and they also focused at a closer range—many people would have felt that those features outweighed the advantages of the Zeisses. For normal users, I never recommend 10 power glasses. Not only do they magnify objects 10 times, they also magnify heat shimmer and any unsteadiness of hand 10 times as well, and show a narrower field than similarly priced 7 or 8’s. 7 or 8 power binoculars are perfectly suitable for serious birding, and unless you’re investing an awful lot of money, the slightly lower magnification is more than offset by the superior light transmission and clarity of 7’s or 8’s.

Another critical feature that most people don’t take into account when buying binoculars is how they feel in the hand. My trusty old Minoltas were a perfect fit in my hands, and were also handy because they fit in my purse or pocket—I could whip them out any time a bird crossed my line of vision. But most men are uncomfortable using them because they’re so small.

If you’re in the market for a pair of binoculars, make sure you make your decision based on your own needs, rather than on what people with lots of advice may tell you. If you would like further information about choosing and buying binoculars, drop me a line in care of this station.

(Recording of a Mourning Dove)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”