A few of the birders' tools - a good pair of binoculars, Field Guide to
Birds, The Sibley Guide to Birds
Drawn by the adventure of bird watching, you may sit for hours on your back
porch waiting for a Bullock's Oriole to sip nectar, like fine wine, from the
blooms of your trumpet vine. You may hike for miles through southeastern Arizona's
forested Chiricahua Mountains in search of the Elegant Trogon. You may sit in
the pre-dawn darkness beside a high desert wetland on an icy winter morning to
watch migratory water birds rise from the water's surface on the first rays of
the sun. You may wade through estuarine swamplands in search of a Roseate Spoonbill.
You may explore tropical rain forests, where you will find some of the most diverse
bird populations in the world. You may dress dowdy, giving up the
colors of the Paris boardwalks. You may have to add a whole new shelf in your
library to make room for new field guides on birds. You will likely find a new
ethic in your relationships with wildlife. Along the way, you may make
eccentric new bird-watching friends (or become an eccentric new bird-watching
One thing is certain, you will discover a whole new dimension to the meaning
Watching Birds and Seeing Birds
You will advance to a whole new level in the art of birding when you reach
beyond the simple identification of a species. "In fact," said Claudia
Wilds in the Audubon Society's Master Guide to Birding, "this is the time
to start looking." She recommends that you study the bird as if you "will
soon be asked to describe or even draw it." You should, she says, look
first at the eye, and "try to ascertain the color of the iris." You
should "study the size and shape of the bill…" You should study
the bird's proportions, its coloring and patterns. "You will soon discover," said
Wilds, "that you can memorize birds in much the same way you memorize human
Birds, you will find, sometimes defy certain identification, as David Allen
Sibley points out in his book The Sibley Guide to Birds. For instance, birds
of the same species may vary in subtle ways across a range or from range to range.
Colors and patterns vary among adults and juveniles, males and females. Plumage
may vary as feathers wear and fade. Silhouettes may vary between males and females.
Hybrids sometimes occur when closely related species interbreed. Nevertheless,
you can still use the distinctive traits – for instance, size, silhouette,
plumage color and pattern, behavior and songs and calls – shared by birds
of the same species as clues to identification.
Obviously, you can compare sizes to distinguish between disparate species
such as a Western Bluebird and a Red-tailed Hawk, but you can also compare sizes
to distinguish between the more closely related species such as a Ground Dove
and a Mourning Dove or a White-winged Dove or a Rock Dove. You can use silhouettes
to tell the difference between, say, a Swallow-tailed Kite and a Black-tailed
Hawk, although both have comparable lengths and wing spans. You can rely on the
colors and patterns of plumage to identify the Scrub Jay, the Piñon Jay
and the Mexican Jay, although they all have similar sizes and silhouettes. You
can identify many birds by their behavior, for instance, the undulating flight
of various woodpeckers, the businesslike scurrying of the Gambel's Quail, the
pompous courting displays of the Boat-tailed Grackle. While it would be
roughly akin to learning the score of Barber of Seville in Italian, you will
find, as Wilds said, that "Knowing the songs and calls of a region's birds
will enable you to identify a far higher percentage than you could with binoculars
Dressing for the Occasion
As your passion for the birds grows, you will likely begin dressing in the
shades of the soils, the rock formations and the foliage, giving up the bright
colors of the city. You will wear practical and durable cottons and wools and,
on foul winter days, rain gear and long underwear rather than rustling and snag-prone
taffeta dresses and silk suits. You will take to sensible shoes and boots rather
than high heels and Guccis.
You will discover a number of excellent field guides at just about any general
book store. For instance, Roger Tory Peterson, renowned naturalist of the 20th
century and inventor of the modern field guide, produced indispensible books
on American bird populations. The Audubon Society, working with preeminent authorities,
has produced a substantial list of field guides, including the treasured three-volume
set Master Guide to Birding. (Unfortunately, Master
Guide to Birding is, as far
as I can discover, now out of print, but you can still find it in used book stores
and on the Internet.)
A New Ethic
Your increasing appreciation for the birds will likely spawn a new ethic. "In
all situations," said Sibley, "you must first consider the welfare
of the birds. Avoid making a disturbance, especially at roosting and nesting
sites. Tread lightly and encourage others to do the same."
Red-tailed hawk up close.
A Few Bird Facts
- Flying dinosaurs
gave rise to the earliest birds some 150 million years ago.
- Today, some 10,000
species of bird populate our planet, with roughly ten percent of them occurring
in the continental United States and Canada.
- During migratory
seasons in the U. S. and Canada, hundreds of millions of birds follow a complex
system of routes that pass through four north-south corridors: the Atlantic Flyway,
the Mississippi Flyway, the Central Flyway and the Pacific Flyway. At the height
of the seasons, they bring extraordinary bird-watching opportunities.
- The Arctic Tern may
migrate all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctica and return every year during
its life, which may span two decades—a lifetime distance of some 400 thousand
miles. It ranks at the top of the list in migratory range.
- The Wandering Albatross
(native to the Antarctic) has the largest wingspan of all the birds, 11 feet
or more; the Bee Hummingbird (from Cuba), the smallest, some 1.25 to 1.5 inches.
- The Ostrich (from
Africa) lays the largest egg in the world (two pounds or more), hummingbirds,
the smallest (a few hundredths of an ounce).
- The Peregrine Falcon
can fly well over 100 miles per hour, making it the fastest of all the birds.
For information on other aspects of birding, see Finding
the Birds, A Bird
Watching Journal, A Back Yard Bird Sanctuary and Bird