Got eyes? Good! Use ’em to help you identify birds wherever you see ’em.
By Ellen Lambeth; Composite photos by Richard Crossley; Art by Dave Clegg
Did you think bird-watching was just for nature nuts? No way! Nowadays, it’s called “birding” and anyone can do it. In fact, it can be exciting, competitive, and fun.
Binoculars are nice but not needed. Just train your eyes and mind to focus on the birds you see. Here are some helpful observation tips:
1. Size. Try comparing an unfamiliar bird with one you know well. For example, is it bigger than a robin? Smaller than a sparrow? Tall like a stork?
2. Shape. Check the bird’s overall design. What type of bill does it have? Is the tail long or short? Is there a crest on the head? Do you see a long neck or long legs?
3. Behavior. What is the bird doing? Is it looking for food in a tree, on the ground, or in water? Does it perch on a branch or cling to the trunk? Does it bob its head or wag its tail?
4. Time and Place. Think about where you are, what kind of habitat you’re in, and what season it is. For example, if you’re on the East Coast, the bird you see is probably not a western meadowlark. If there’s no water around, it’s probably not a kingfisher. If it’s winter, it’s probably not an oriole. And, of course, you’re much more likely to see common birds than rare ones.
5. Color. Can you make out the bird’s coloring? If so, what’s the main color you see? What other colors are present? Are there any patterns, such as eye rings, neck bands, breast streaks, or bars on the wings or tail?
6. Sound. You can ID birds by ear, too, as each species has a song of its own. But that’s another story—for the spring or summertime. (That’s when male birds sing to attract mates or claim territories.)
Think about it: You use similar clues all the time to tell people apart. Let’s say, for example, that you recognize James as the tall, skinny kid in your class who’s usually plugged in to an iPod. Jess is the curly-haired boy who wears glasses and often hangs out with James. Janet is the short, rosy-cheeked redhead who giggles a lot. Just use identification skills like these on birds, and you’ll turn into a star birder!
GET A HEAD START
Check out the forest scene in the eastern United States above. Here’s what’s there: The red bird with a black mask, thick orange bill, and a crest is a male cardinal. The little gray bird with a black hood is a chickadee. (This one is a blackcapped chickadee.) The chisel-billed bird with a red cap and zebra-striped back is a red-bellied woodpecker. There’s a group of four blue jays (one in flight). And circling above are a bald eagle and four vultures (of two different kinds). There are also a black pileated woodpecker in flight and a bright yellow male goldfinch. Can you tell who’s who from the descriptions? Now look below and try a different scene.
Five of the species in the first photo show up again at this schoolyard habitat above. Can you find them?
Good for you if you ID’d the flashy bird on the snow bank as a blue jay!
Can you find five cardinals? (Hint: The female isn’t brightly colored like the male. Also, a bird’s crest sometimes lies flat.) There are a male and female in the foreground. Then look for three others farther back in the picture.
There’s one close up and another one farther back. These Carolina chickadees look similar to the black-capped chickadee.
Look for one close up and another one farther away.
Turkey vultures are black with red heads. They usually hold their wings in a “V” when they soar—instead
of straight out, as eagles and hawks do. Check the sky for two of them.
Successful so far? Now track down five new species.
Maybe you already know the red-breasted bird in front of the school bus. (It’s true, you can find robins all year round over much of the United States.) Where’s the second robin?
You may recognize these big black birds, too. Find two of them.
Mourning doves are soft brown and have small heads and long, tapered tails. Find one flying and one on the ground.
Nuthatches are small birds. They use their needle-shaped bills to poke for insects in summer and seeds from cones in winter. They often “work” a tree head downward. Can you find three red-breasted nuthatches in the picture?
The last species to ID is a mid-size hawk with a long, banded tail. You might see one swooping toward feeders to catch its prey: other birds. In this picture, there’s one in flight and one perched in the background.
OK, so, how did you do? Did you find all 23 birds of 10 different species? To check your birding skills, check below.
BIRD ID KEY
A – blue jay (1)
B – northern cardinal (5)
C – Carolina chickadee (2)
D – red-bellied woodpecker (2)
E – turkey vulture (2)
F – American robin (2)
G – American crow (2)
H – mourning dove (2)
I – red-breasted nuthatch (3)
J – Cooper’s hawk (2)
Be a BIRDER!
Of course, when you’re identifying birds in a picture, you can take your time looking. In the real world, birds move around and fly in or out of view.
The good news is that birds are just about everywhere. Head outside—or keep watch out a window—and see how many individual birds you can count and of how many different species. Over time, you’ll start to notice some of the same ones over and over, and they’ll become like familiar friends. You’ll discover how each kind is similar to and different from the others.
Don’t worry if you can’t identify them at first. You can always ask a better birder or look for them in a field guide to discover their names. Eventually, you’ll know their names by heart.
Once you’ve sharpened your birding skills, you might want to share what you see with scientists. They’re keeping track of which species—and how many of each—seem to show up from year to year in places all across the country. One program doing that is National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. It’s been held every winter for over 100 years! Some places have even started counts just for kids. Want to know more? Go online with a parent to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count page. Check out the map view to find a local group and then ask how you can get involved.
Or join the online Great Backyard Bird Count in February. For more information, have your family visit birdsource.org/gbbc on the Web. Your teacher might also want to check out fledgingbirders.org online.
Rangers: The photos and tips in this article come from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley (Princeton University Press).