A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but knowing its name makes it uniquely yours. There is latent power in names because they evolve into lifelong relationships layered with personal experience.
But identifying birds can seem hopelessly confusing to beginners. Imagine trying to find a match for that little brown bird you just saw in a field guide that has more than 800 to choose from — and countless variations of brown, rufous, chestnut, bay, or rust.
But don’t give up, because there are better ways to get started, although they take some effort. Famed birding expert Peter Dunne tells his students not to go into the field with an open mind. Instead, he urges them to learn how to see and what to look for. It’s not a passive experience. It’s about becoming a better observer and learning to ask the right questions.
Keeping a notebook can be one of the best ways to improve your skills as an observer; but resist the urge to open your filed guide. Keep writing down details as long as the bird remains in view. There will be plenty of time to consult your field guide after the bird is gone.
Ask yourself such questions as “Is it the size of a sparrow, a robin, or a crow? Is it alone or with a flock? Does it perch on branches or feed on the ground?” Note such details as the way the color is distributed on the head, chin, back, wings, flanks, tail. Does it have wing bars? It’s these details that will allow you to confidently nail its identity. Also note its behavior, the habitat and season of the year. There is nothing like keeping a notebook to help you remember significant details. As your skills grow, of course, you’ll learn to ask better questions and pay more attention to the most relevant characteristics.
Instead of trying to learn one bird at a time, get to know the families most likely to be seen in your locale. Regional field guides like “Birds of the Puget Sound Region,” by Dennis Paulson, Bob Morse, et al, can be especially helpful for beginners because they focus entirely on the birds you’ll see west of the Cascades. The opening pages highlight the most common local birds. You’ll be spared the frustration of finding a bird in the national field guide that you’re sure is the one you saw, only to find that it is never seen this side of the Mississippi River.
Birds have been evolving for at least 200 million years. During the Jurassic period, many of our dinosaurs were actually feathered birds. T-Rex has been described as the “ten-ton roadrunner from hell.” The bills, feet and other characteristics each family share are uniquely adapted to their specialized niche in nature, based on how and what they eat and where they live and seek shelter. Getting to know the families in your area and the habitat they prefer is the surest way to take your skills to the next level.
Backyard seed feeders can be an ideal place to start because you’ve dramatically narrowed the range of families you can expect. And knowing which families to expect gives you a big head start in identifying them.
If you keep your feeders stocked with sunflower seed or Niger, the finches are likely to be some of your best customers. Study their pictures in your field guide and get acquainted with the most common backyard finches: the House Finch, Purple Finch and American Goldfinch.
They may look drab and confusingly alike all winter; but each spring they shed and regrow their feathers (molt), and re-emerge in dazzling arrays of glowing sunlit yellow (American Goldfinch), hues of red and orange (House Finch), or look like they were dipped in raspberry juice (Purple Finch). These highly social groups often come to your feeders in flocks, and their joyful bubbly songs are one of the highlights of spring mornings in many backyards. The females and immatures may continue to look confusingly similar, but you can usually tell which males they hang out with.
As your skills grow, so will your enjoyment, and you’ll undoubtedly want to share your fascination with birds. With human activities creating so many survival hazards for birds, those who love birds want to help grow their armies of devoted friends, because people want to protect what they love.