If you’re watching a Seattle Mariners game, you can easily guess by their uniforms what the players on the field do for a living.
In the stands, it’s a different story. Except for the peddlers hawking hot dogs, drinks and other ballpark staples, you’ll find few clues about what people do for a living. Doctors and lawyers look pretty much the same as bus drivers and bartenders.
But birds have been preparing for their special calling for 165 million years. The shape of their bills and feet, the delicate patterns and arrangement of their feathers, and innumerable variations in anatomy and behavior are adaptations that make them superbly suited to their livelihood.
The hooked bill of the red-tailed hawk is perfect for tearing meat, and its powerful talons are deadly tools for gripping and killing small prey. Shorebirds like the greater yellowlegs have bills designed to probe for mud-dwelling worms and marine organisms; and its feet and long legs are well adapted for wading on sandy, silted shorelines as the tides advance and recede.
The stubby conical bills of the finches are designed to crack seeds, and their toes curl securely around swaying branches and flower stalks. The tapered wings of the swallows and swifts allow them to perform graceful aerial acrobatics in pursuit of insects; and their bills open cavernously wide so they can scoop them up in flight.
The arrangement of toes of the Vaux’s swift allow it to hang suspended from the walls of a tree cavity. Dabbling ducks like the mallard and Northern pintail propel themselves on the water with webbed feet, pausing to “duck” with upturned rumps to pluck succulent plants from the bottom.
Learning why they look and behave the way they do is one of the best ways to take your bird watching skills to the next level. Families of birds resemble each other and share many of the same traits because they occupy closely related niches in food and habitat. That makes it just as easy to learn wholes families of birds as it is to learn individual species.
Beginning bird watchers are usually overwhelmed at first with similarities in color. Trying to identify that “little brown job” from a comprehensive field guide with more than 800 species can be impossibly frustrating. There are infinite shades of brown, so color is seldom much help. But those who take the time to learn the families of birds most likely to be seen in local habitats will be well rewarded.
Birding icon Pete Dunne said, “Don’t go into the field with an open mind.” Instead, he recommends preparing yourself to ask the right questions and make a note of details, such as bill shape, size, habitat, behavior and variations in color and patterns.
While in the field, don’t be too quick to open your field guide. As long as the bird is in view, continue to make detailed notes. A pad and pencil come in handy, because memory alone can be unreliable.
Bird watching is one of America’s fastest growing hobbies for many reasons. Besides being captivating and exquisitely beautiful, they can open fascinating windows into the world of wildlife and our understanding of nature.