Tips for Beginning Birders
by Vicki Piaskowski, Kerry Scanlan and Michelle Jacobi
First and foremost, be patient! Patience and practice will help you to identify most of the birds you see. A good pair of binoculars, a field guide, and these general guidelines will help you get off to a great start!
Whenever you spot an unfamiliar bird, ask yourself the following questions:
WHAT IS THE GENERAL SIZE OF THE BIRD?
Compare its size to a familiar bird. Is it larger or smaller than a house sparrow or melodious blackbird? Is it robin- sized or larger? By first determining size, you can rule out some birds it is not likely to be.
WHAT IS THE BIRD'S SHAPE?
Recognize that birds from the same "families" share the same basic body shape. For example, most sparrows, though they actually may be different species, share the same stocky appearance. Another example: Most people can visualize the shape of a duck; when seeing a duck-shaped bird, you probably can conclude that it is a type of duck.
WHAT IS THE SHAPE OF THE BIRD'S BILL?
Bills come in many shapes and sizes. Each variation serves an important purpose for the species' feeding behavior. Woodpeckers' strong "chisel-shaped" bills enable them to probe for insects hidden beneath tree bark. A cardinal or seedeater's thick, wedge-shaped bill is adapted primarily for cracking seeds. The relative shape of a bird's bill is a good indicator of what its diet is.
WHAT IS THE BIRD DOING?
Is the bird feeding on the ground, or high up in a tree? Is the bird swimming or wading in water? Is it alone or part of a flock? Ground feeding may suggest that the bird is a sparrow or ground-dove. Birds feeding high in trees could be warblers or flycatchers. Ducks and geese often are found swimming, while wading birds could be herons or shorebirds.
DOES THE BIRD HAVE OBVIOUS FIELD MARKS?
Examples of field marks include the pronounced crest on a cardinal and yellow-bellied elaenia, the "cap" on a black-capped chickadee and the "collar" on a male white-collared seedeater. Field marks may appear on any part of a bird. An important place to look for field marks is on the side or top of the head. Also look for patterns on the wings, tail and rump (located at the base of the tail above the tail feathers). At your first glance, field marks may not be apparent; look very carefully.
WHAT IS THE COLOR OF THE BIRD?
Finally, color may help you to identify a bird. Remember, though, that many birds can vary in color, depending on the season and/or the bird's sex.
Kaufman, K. 2000. Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, NY.
Harrison, George H. 1997. Backyard Bird Watching for Kids. Willow Creek Press, Minocqua, WI.
Peterson, Roger Tory. 1997. Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds. Houghton Mifflin Publishers, Boston, MA.