Intuitive Birdwatching

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Throughout my biological education and career, identification “keys” were very handy. Called “dichotomous” keys because they typically branch in two, they look like an upside-down tree with many branches. Identifying bird specimens in the hand with a key is pretty simple. The first choice might ask whether the bill is straight or curved. If it is straight you choose that branch, eliminating all the birds with curved bills. Then the second choice might be long vs. short legs. Choose long and all the short-legged birds are eliminated. And so on down the key until you eliminate every other bird and have identified the bird you are standing under.

Flow chart about bird taxonomy
Source: EdrawMax Online

There are various keys to birds on the web such as the one from the BYU Life Science Museum and the ISU Digital Atlas, but these are also for indoor use. Birdwatchers in the field can’t use a key because birds are often moving as well as being at a distance so there is little opportunity to examine them closely. Identifying birds in the field is a more informal process, but with experience it becomes intuitive.

When I lead a trip I might point out a group of birds flying overhead and identify them as Eurasian Starlings. Someone usually asks “how do you know that?”, because the birds were only visible for a few seconds. My answer is “experience.” From seeing many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of birds over the years, you develop a key in your brain. 

Seeing small birds overhead eliminates big birds like ducks or herons. Since they are in a flock, that eliminates woodpeckers, titmice, mockingbirds, and bunches of other species that don’t flock. They do not cling to tree bark like creepers or nuthatches. Their tails are short, eliminating pigeons, doves, magpies, or crows. Final clue: the wing shape is a right triangle with the hypotenuse as the trailing edge. That points to Eurasian Starlings.

The trick to learning bird identification is exposure in the field. You can look at pictures, watch videos, consult guides, and listen to bird songs on an app but seeing a bird up close and personal is your best bet. That means going out with someone who knows the birds and can point out identifying clues. Little by little you will learn the important characteristics and develop a key in your brain. After you get to know the local birds, you will be able to put them aside and start picking out less common species, like a stamp or coin collector who can sort through piles of stamps or coins and quickly pick out the valuable ones. Your mind will develop a catalog of birds with a now intuitive mental key. 

Then songs. Only after you learn to identify a bird can you learn its song effectively. To listen to a disembodied sound is minimally useful but watching a bird sing gives you a mental image of the song, making it easier to remember. Learning birds is an endless but exciting avocation.

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