Q: I know you have occasionally written about birds in the yard and garden, but I haven't paid too much attention to the birds in my yard. Over the past few weeks of being stuck inside, I have noticed a lot more birds in the tree outside my office window. I assume they are migrating. There have been several with red feathers, and some with yellow, that I have never seen before. I have an old bird book, but I can't seem to find any of the birds in the book. What tips can I use to identify these beautiful birds?
A: I teach an ornithology class at my local master naturalist program at the university extension office. "Master naturalist" is a designation similar to "master gardener." You should check to see if there is a class in your area.
The first thing I tell new birders (the new, sportier term, which sounds better than the old "bird-watcher") is that you will probably remember where you were when you saw the bird and what the bird was doing. Just like you said, you were in your office, and the birds were in the tree.
But what we don't remember is more important, so we need to be diligent in paying attention. You must look for the dots, spots and stripes on the head, body, wings and tail of the birds. Repeat that last sentence out loud a couple of times to help it sink in. As soon as you see the bird, pay direct attention to these color differences on the bird. The smaller the bird, the more attention you have to pay.
There will be several birds on each page of the bird book, and they will only differ in small ways through the dots, spots and stripes on the head, body, wings and tail. If you don't look for the differences, all you will be able to remember is the general information of where you were and what the bird was doing — such as flying or hopping on the ground.
Another important thing to note that comes a bit more automatically is the size of the bird and the size of the body parts. Is the bird the size of a sparrow, robin, chicken or turkey? Is the tail longer than the body? Are the wings long and slender or short and stubby?
I think you could recognize more birds than you realize, along with their general body shape and size. You can use the birds you know to help you group the birds you don't know. Think about the birds you learned as a kid, such as the ostrich, swan, vulture, penguin, flamingo, duck, goose, dove, finch, cardinal, bluebird, heron, oriole, hawk, eagle, falcon, owl, hummingbird, woodpecker, quail, stork and seagull. I can go on and on. Each of these names has many species that differ mainly by the dots, spots and stripes on the head, body, wings and tail, and somewhat by size.
The birds in the book that are not on this list can be compared with these for size and color patterns.
Another thing that will help you identify the birds in the book is reading about the kinds of habitats they live in and the range of areas they spend the summer and winter. You would not expect to find swans in the woods, right? Some birds are very specific as to where they live, and others are more general.
Most bird books have maps that show the summer range of where the birds breed, with a different color for the areas they spend the winter and a third color for areas they are only seen during migration. Because birds don't read the bird books, they can sometimes be seen out of their normal range. But a person new to birding should probably assume they need to keep going through the book to find the right bird if their first choice is way out of its normal range.
We are in the peak of migration in most of the country right now, so keep the binoculars handy, and keep a sharp ear out for new sounds. Most bird species make songs that can be used to identify the birds, but it often takes much more practice to learn these songs than it does to identify birds by appearance.
Email questions to Jeff Rugg at [email protected] To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: JillWellington at Pixabay