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Identifying Birds

Summary: Learning to identify birds can be great fun and a real challenge. For those who have watched with exasperation as experienced birders identified dozens of flitting shadows on the wing, now it's your turn to partake in the adventure.

You have certainly seen pictures of people with eyes glued to binoculars searching treetops for an elusive bird. You, too, can join in one of America's fastest growing hobbies; bird watching. Getting started is simple. Begin with a field guide such as Peterson's Guide to North American Birds or The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America or All of the Birds of North America; all good choices for a beginner. All of the Birds of North America has especially nice silhouettes of birds and careful discussions of such essentials as beak shape, feeding habits, habitat and other essentials.

You need something to bring your birds up close and personal so you can select from an assortment of field glasses. Choices will be dictated by conditions. For example, you're visiting the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to see shore birds. Many shore birds are still feeders that move very slowly. Once you sight them in your lens, they stay put. Use higher power binoculars here. A 10x power lens with a relatively narrow field of vision is fine.

Spotting scopes can also be used for birding. High-powered optics are more expensive, have narrower fields of vision, are less mobile and heavier, but in an area easily reachable by car, with less traveled paths and faraway birds, this is a workable trade-off.

Suppose you visit a nearby woods or botanical garden where you will be able to more closely approach the birds. A 7x 35 lens works well here. The first number refers to magnification, in this case 7 times. The second number, 35, tells you how large a slice of the surrounding area you can view at one time. This measurement, field of vision, is the most important consideration in a woodland environment where the ability to isolate hopping and flitting birds from a leafy environment is essential.

You have your field guide; you have your binocular(s). What next? Learn the bird families. Each family has been shaped by the foods they eat and the ecological niches they inhabit.
Are they feeding on the ground, in the tops of trees, in the bushes eating fruit, pecking at rotted wood in a tree or are they slowly plucking fish from a marsh or diving from above with lightening speed to snatch them from the sea?

What kind of beak does your bird possess? Is it a heavy one for splitting seeds or a long sharp beak, convenient for extracting insects from rotting wood? The hummingbird's distinctive beak helps it sip nectar. Every family of duck is identified by the unique shape of its beak for surface feeding, diving for food beneath the surface or straining water to extract nutrients.

Beak shape and feeding habits are invaluable clues. Other clues to your bird's identification may include location. Are you standing in an open field, walking in a forest, strolling along a beach or slogging through a marsh? Each location has characteristic birds.

What other behavioral clues can you spot? Is the bird solitary, part of a pair of birds, part of a flock of one species or part of a mixed flock? How does it fly? Is it drifting lazily on thermals or flying fast and in formation? Does it fly in a straight line or as if drunk? Is it darting quickly at insects in the air or near trees, or does it run, instead of flying?

Identification of a nest can help in your bird spotting. Is the nest an Oriole's distinctive hanging nest? The big sticks set on platforms might mean an Osprey. Perhaps it's a swallow's nest set under a bridge or trestle. Some birds, such as burrowing owls, even nest underground.

What time of the year can you see the bird? All year round? Only in the spring, fall, or winter? The range map in your field guide narrows the choices.

What sounds does your bird make? Websites like have song samples. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City also has recordings of North American birds.

Do you notice any distinctively patterned feathers? Maybe it's the Mockingbird's window-pane pattern or the Chickadee's black mask or the Robin's red breast. There are sex and age markers such as fluffy feathers for babies or brightly-colored feathers indicating males. When you start to get better you may be able to observe the angles of a bird's wings to make an identification. A sharp œV might indicate a turkey or black vulture. A lazy œW shaped wing might be an Osprey.

Size is essential to tell the difference between look-alike pairs like Black Capped and Carolina Chickadees or Downy and Hairy Woodpecker.

Identifying birds can be great fun and present a real challenge.

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