(This article was originally co-authored with Steve Philips and published in the November 1993 newsletter; it was expanded and updated for this issue.)
Did you know that in recent years birding has become one of America’s favorite pastimes? Birding is second only to gardening across much of the country. More people are involved with birds, in the backyard, in the field or in both, than all the spectators of all live sports combined. (Not counting athletics on TV like the Super Bowl, the World Series, the World Cup, or the Olympics.) Several organizations, such as the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Wild Bird Feeding Institute, and even the U.S. Department of the Interior, keep annual statistics on this phenomenon. Much assembled new information and research comes from “citizen scientists” like ourselves. And with each passing year, the numbers continue to grow. When I was a kid and just beginning to get involved with birds, I found out quickly that two types of people constituted the majority of birders: nerds and seniors. It wasn’t information was easily shared with my peers. By the time I started this business 25 years ago, things had already changed quite a bit from when I was growing up. Now, as a senior myself, I have watched the popularity of birding grow among the larger public and know it is no longer limited to special interest groups. Today, birding is generally considered a fun activity. Whole families go birding nowadays. Parents realize this is a stimulating, engaging, entertaining, and educational pursuit. Backyard birding brings nature right to your door. Birds are the most watchable of wildlife, even in dense urban settings. Today, I have customers whose children are far more knowledgeable about birds than I was at their age. Birding is an excellent way to introduce children to the wonders of nature.
Many books have been written to assist new birders, also called birdwatchers, in learning how to identify birds, both in your backyard and in the field. Any of these books will provide valuable and essential information for those who are just beginning to enjoy this hobby, which brings us closer to and more appreciative of the natural surroundings of our environment.This article will attempt to distill and condense some of the basic information which helps form the foundation of understanding and identifying wild birds.
Tools of the Trade: Binoculars
All that birders need, besides a will to learn and patience, are two essential tools to achieve the best results. A good pair of binoculars and at least one good field identification guide are all that’s required. We always advise beginning birders to purchase the best pair of binoculars they can afford, even if it means waiting another paycheck or two. Unlike computers and cell phones which change yearly with the addition of new features, a good pair of binoculars should be considered a lifetime investment. Some who are tentative about spending will buy an entry-level pair of optics and find after six months of use, give or take, that they should have bought the better optics right from the start. Good binoculars will never disappoint and will give you many years of happy, sharp-focused viewing. Better optics reveal more details and increase the satisfaction derived from the hobby. The Vortex optics we feature are professional grade, priced from about to $100 to $1600, and all models come with an unconditional lifetime guarantee. The most popular models we sell are in the $300 price range.
Tools of the Trade: Field Guides
There are several excellent field guides available. Any major guide should be considered essential equipment for birders and having more than one field guide enables cross-referencing, an abundance of information, and multiple pictures. Most field guides come in Eastern and Western Regions. Buy the guides for the regions you intend to bird in the most. The Peterson series of guides and the National Geographic field guides are perhaps the best known and most popular, especially with beginners. The Sibley field guides are excellent for birders of all levels. There are other, more limited, geographic guides, but having a major guide will provide a wider range of birds and information.
All three of those recommended guide books feature paintings of birds rather than photographs of birds. I have found that the guide books that feature photographs don’t quite measure up to the ones that feature paintings of birds. A photograph may not be as good for several reasons. It shows an individual bird of the species and that individual bird may not always be representative of the species as a whole. It may have been hard to photograph, the angle of view or the posture of the bird may be very different from the typical view. There may be several minor reasons why photographs are not as reliable as paintings. Paintings take into account the species as a whole, not just one individual. The paintings are created to show what the bird would typically look like from the viewer’s vantage point. It takes into consideration the physical changes birds may go through throughout the year. Seasonal plumage changes as a result of breeding and winter and summer morphs; plumage also differs among adults and juveniles and males and females [differences between males and females, etc. are not seasonal—note changes]. Most birds will molt at least once per year. Molting birds may be difficult to readily identify without the aid of a good guide. Most guides will have short chapters like “How to use this book” or “How to identify birds.” These sections are at the front of the guide books and are essential reading as they explain what to look for and exceptions to the general rules. By reading these opening chapters you will learn that there’s more to learn about identification than simply observing, although most birders rely most heavily upon visual identification. Additionally, vocalizations are a more reliable way to identifying birds. All of the guides will have descriptions of each species’ calls and songs. Having a CD of bird calls and songs is an excellent way to learn to identify birds as even the most visually similar birds (sparrows, warblers, flycatchers, raptors, etc.) will each have a unique and distinctive vocalization. Knowing your bird sounds means you can positively identify birds by sound even if you don’t actually get to see them! So, as with binoculars to help you see details the naked eye can easily miss, field guides are indispensable tools.
Using Field Guides
Utilize your field guide to aid in your analysis. Look up one of your backyard birds in your field guide, read the text about that bird, then study the illustration from bill to tail noticing the field marks, especially any marks emphasized by the author or pointed to with little arrows. These tend to be the most important and reliable marks to look for on that particular species. Next, look for these markings on the actual bird in your yard. Don’t be too tempted to go to your field guide too quickly. Spend as much time as possible, before the bird flies off, to better remember all the special things you observed about that bird. Then, when you look up that species in your guide, you will be better able to more quickly identify the bird correctly. It is definitely worth the time to observe the bird for as long as possible before taking your eye off it to look in the book. Being familiar with the layout of the book will also be an aid in quickly finding the bird in the book. Even without a bird in front of you to identify, casually thumbing through your field guide can also prove beneficial. This is a very satisfying way to spend a free moment. From just enjoying the plethora of colors, to reminiscing about the experiences that accompanied spotting a particular bird, to dreaming about birds yet to be seen some day, browsing is a worthwhile venture. At the same time you are learning the layout of the field guide, you’re actually learning the birds’ names, their habitat, their conservation status, vocalizations of their calls and songs, the ranges they are found in, their relative and actual size, and a host of other good-to-know information.
What to Look For
Trying to identify birds in the field can initially be a little frustrating but, as with learning anything, the more one practices, the better one becomes. You can’t sit at the piano for your first lesson and expect to play like Mozart. With repeated attempts, your birding skills will develop. The more birding you do, the quicker your skills will sharpen. There are a few things you can do to develop the necessary skills just from watching the birds you’ve been feeding in your backyard. For example, even without binoculars, you can recognize that the large bird that arrives in your yard with long swooping and undulating glides and lands clinging to the side of the tree is a Gila Woodpecker. Gilas are the most common of the woodpecker family present in the Sonoran Desert. And those small birds that have some red color and tend to hang out in groups are probably House Finches, one of the most numerous species we have year around. Relative size comparisons will also prove helpful in quickly narrowing down the possibilities of correct identification. For instance, and this is an extreme example, by size alone a hummingbird cannot be mistaken for a Flamingo. Recognizing different types of behavior, from flight patterns to flocking, tail wagging to hopping, sitting still or exhibiting constant nervous movement, and food and habitat preferences, are good clues to take with you into the field. Thoroughly analyze the birds in your backyard. Absorb everything you can about their colors, sizes, shapes, physical features, foods they eat, how they move on the ground (hop or walk), how they fly (more flapping or more gliding), and any other obvious habits, traits, or characteristics you can observe and remember. Any of these characteristics that you learn will give you a firm foundation that can help you narrow down the possibilities of which species you are seeing in the field or, at least, which specific group of family of birds.
When you head out into the field, bear in mind that many birds are very skittish and the slightest noise or movement can cause a bird to fly off or hide deep in nearby vegetation. So when you’re out birding, try to be as quiet and stealthy as possible. Birding by yourself or with a companion or two is preferable to going in large groups. Arrange for a babysitter if you have an infant or toddler. Leave your pets at home. The more you can keep a quiet atmosphere and the least disturbance to the birds will help you listen for any songs or calls that the birds might be making. Without distractions, you can more carefully scan with your binoculars for birds that are perched and not necessarily noticeable due just to their movements. Little brown jobs (LBJs) are birds that may appear more nondescript, as they may be plain looking and lack the flashy colors and distinctive field marks other birds may exhibit. But good binoculars will bring into focus the finest details that will aid in identification.
Develop Your Critical Vision
Once you’ve spotted a bird, remember that one of the most definitive features, especially for beginners, is going to be color. However, in your processing of where and how the colors are arranged, you will also be picking up other clues (i.e., size, shape, behavior, etc.) which will assist in making the final determination of the exact species. Let’s say you’ve managed to locate the bird with your binoculars before it flew away. Note precisely where the color is and its shape. For example, is there a stripe above or through the eye, a throat patch, a wing bar, a spot on its belly, or an eye ring? Are there streaks on its breast, spots on its breast, streaks on its side, is it clear-breasted, or does it show a combination of more than one of these features? Next get a feel for its overall size. At this point you can draw on your field guide to help you narrow down the possibilities to a few birds if not the exact bird. See what feature the author has pointed out as distinguishing and if you didn’t notice that feature and the bird is still around and visible, take another look at the bird. (I call this critical vision. You’re looking for all the details you can discover as opposed to casual looking where you didn’t notice all the details. Developing your critical vision will enable you to master the basic skills much more effectively.) Repeat this procedure for other birds. Sometimes the difference between two species might be that one has an eye ring and one doesn’t, or one bird has a reddish bill and the other a yellow bill; this happens to be one of the major identification characteristics for distinguishing Northern Cardinals from Pyrrhuloxia.
One Last Thing
One good last check is to look at the range maps in your guides to see if that Horned Puffin sitting on top of that saguaro could be expected to be found in this area. If you still can’t determine the exact species, don’t be discouraged. Remember, patience and practice will be well rewarded! Some species are extremely difficult to correctly identify in a short time. Some species of birds can only be told apart by their songs and calls or by experts who have the bird in hand (such as banders and other researchers) and have been studying birds for years and have lots of in-the-field experience. As a final tip, let me say that in all your hurried glances with the binoculars and frantic rifling through your field guides, make sure you relax and enjoy your surroundings and the creatures you are mingling with. So, while you can teach yourself almost everything you need to know, it’s important to remember how awesome nature is and that birding should be a relaxing, enjoyable experience. Have fun!