Over the last two weeks, my column has provided helpful tips on how to improve your bird identification skills. Today’s column will continue in the same vein. Another key piece of knowledge that can be helpful when identifying wild birds is to observe what the bird in question is eating.
For example, over the years I’ve had many people come into the store and excitedly announce they have orioles in their yard. I share in their enthusiasm, but I also probe a little by asking questions such as, “Where did you see them?” The customer gleefully shares they saw the orioles at their seed feeder.
Knowing that orioles are not a seed eater, I am able to quickly make the correct identification. What they are seeing are black-headed grosbeaks, not orioles, as grosbeaks are seed eaters. Both species share similar colors — black, orange and white, and can be confused by a new birder. However, knowing what each species eats is a helpful tool to aid in your identification.
Misidentification based on plumage is not uncommon, as many species share similar colors. This happens frequently in the spring when customers confuse bluebirds and buntings. A customer will come into the store and excitedly share how they are seeing bluebirds in their yard. Again, I’ll politely ask where they are seeing the bluebirds, and invariably the answer is at their seed feeder.
Knowing that bluebirds are not seed eaters, I quickly make the correct identification. What they are seeing are lazuli buntings, not bluebirds. During migration, lazuli buntings are a common backyard bird at seed feeders, especially when the seed blend contains white-proso millet. I correct their misidentification by explaining bluebirds don’t eat bird seed, but lazuli buntings love bird seed.
Interestingly, no pictures were looked at. The whole process of identification occurred based strictly on a conversation on where they were seeing the birds, and what the birds were eating. While a picture can be worth a thousand words, knowing where a bird was seen, and what it was doing (behavior) can be just as valuable an identification tool as seeing a picture of the bird.
As you can “see” from the topics discussed in my articles, bird identification is a process of quickly going through a mental checklist of different clues including field marks, habitat, behavior, and diet. The best way to learn bird identification skills is practice. Repetition of seeing, and then studying what you are seeing, will help you fine-tune your bird identification skills. The important thing is to have fun and enjoy the process. Making mistakes is how we learn, and I can honestly say I am continuing to learn.
The nice thing about birding is you can engage in this hobby in the comfort of your home and in your yard. I love the fact that birds are all around us, and all we have to do is to start taking notice of them.
Participating in many hobbies requires one to have to go somewhere to engage in that hobby. For example, a golfer must go to a golf course. A skier must travel to a ski resort. Birding, however, can be done wherever you are. Most individuals spend a lot of discretionary time at home, and birding is as easy as putting out some food and water, and watching the birds come to you!
The investment to get into birding is fairly nominal. The basic tools needed for bird watching are a pair of binoculars and a bird identification guide for the area in which you live. We would be very happy to help you with both!
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn in Prescott, Arizona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.