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How do we identify birds?

Editor's note: The ABA blog welcomes New Jersey birder Blake Mathys as one of a group of regular  contributors on the subject of Bird ID and field skills.  Blake is presently a professor at Stockton College in New Jersey, and is also a part-time lecturer, teaching Ornithology, at Rutgers University.

We've all had the experience of being out in the field birding, accompanied by a person with superior birding skills. A bird flies over, and you get a quick and poor look at the silhouette before it disappears into the distance. You mentally guess it was a woodpecker, but the view was so short that you can't even be sure you're in the correct family. Your birding companion quickly identifies it as a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and you stand in awe. You know what a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker looks like, having seen them various times over the years, but you just didn't see enough on this bird to come to a conclusion as to its identity. How did this person, standing beside you and obtaining the same mediocre looks, come to a definitive identification? Why is it some people are able to identify the vast majority of the birds that they see out in the field, even when conditions aren't conducive to good views and the birds are far away?

I know when I first started birding, there was only one explanation for other birders' amazing abilities: magic. How else could I explain these seemingly superhuman feats? As I've become more experienced and better able to identify birds, I've realized that magic isn't the answer (although there are still times that I wonder). Here in my first post, I would like to briefly explain how we identify most of the birds we see in the field, and I hope that my explanation will help to make the identification process a little clearer, a little easier to understand. If we know how we identify birds, we will become better at it. First, let me start with an analogy that I hope will demystify the identification process.

A friend invites you to a party. All of the guests, except for you, work for a company of a few hundred people. Upon arriving at the party, your friend begins to introduce you to people that she knows. You are taken around the room, and your friend says, "This is Mike, he works in accounting," and "Here's Shelly, she is in charge of inventory on the third floor," and so on. By the end of the night, you've been introduced to dozens of people. Are you in awe and confused by your friend's amazing abilities to identify and name people? Of course not, it can easily be explained by the simple everyday fact that your friend spends a lot of time with her co-workers, and therefore now recognizes them. This is the key to bird identification: familiarity facilitates recognition.

We recognize things and people all day, every day (perhaps not while asleep, although I suppose we recognize mentally conjured objects, and sometimes birds, in our dreams). When we see a stapler, we know it is a stapler because we have seen staplers before and know what they look like. The biggest key to identifying birds in the field is to gain that experience, to become familiar with species so that we recognize them when we see them again. We identify most birds (and most things) not by going through the field marks, but by the subconscious mental matching of what we see to what we know.

RTHA Our ability to recognize species is going to be directly correlated with how often we see them. In much of Eastern North America, the Red-tailed Hawk is the default hawk of the roadsides and field edges. We see it so often that we are intimately familiar with it, its appearance indelibly etched into our minds. These repeated experiences allow us to build up a total species appearance…not just the field guide views, but impressions of how it handles wind gusts and what posture it usually assumes while perched. Our repeated experience eventually allows us to identify a Red-tailed Hawk even when we have less than the best views. This is how the birding friend from the first paragraph identified the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: more experience allowed an easier recognition of the characters that clinched the identification. It wasn't magic; better field identification skills are attainable by anyone willing to put in the time.

I found that I became much better at identification when I started birding alone. I was forced to really look at the birds myself, to actually focus on what I was seeing instead of just enjoying a new species that someone else had identified for me. This brings up another important point: anything that forces you to pay more attention to the birds you are seeing will help to imprint their characteristics into your mind. This can be different things for different people, but photography, making sketches, and taking field notes are three things that seem obvious to me. These things force us to spend more time looking at an individual, instead of identifying it and moving on to the next one. More time creates a more complete subconscious mental impression, allowing us to recognize that species when we see it again. The best birders aren't born knowing how to identify all of the birds; they spend a lot of time and effort gaining that knowledge.

You may be thinking that this works well for Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, and European Starling, but what about Yellow Rail or Kirtland's Warbler? How can we learn to recognize species that we only see rarely (or haven't ever seen before)? The answer is that we can begin to become familiar with appearances even without field experience. Looking at photographs on the internet or studying field guides is a great way to start the process of creating a mental template. When you actually encounter a species for the first time, careful study of it will make it easier for you to recognize it again. It may be necessary to rely on field marks for the first few encounters, but then you'll get to the important stage where you recognize it. It won't be just "the stripe over the eye" but instead a general familiarity with its appearance allowing recognition, a mental shortcut allowing you identify the species even when that "stripe over the eye" (or other essential field mark) isn't visible. I hope that this idea is as encouraging to you as it is to me; identifying birds in the field, no matter your level of expertise, is mainly about experience and familiarity, not about memorizing every field mark in those field guides on your shelf. You are already able to successfully recognize your friends and family; just remember: being certain of that difficult and distant field identification uses the same mental machinery.

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Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers in 2010, studying evolution of birds introduced to islands. His field work was in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Trinidad, and was complemented by museum research. Prior to graduate school, he worked with Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows in Everglades National Park, as a hawk counter in Washington State, on the Farallon Islands studying Northern Elephant Seals for PRBO Conservation Science, and sampling fish for the Ohio EPA. Blake and his wife Dimitria recently moved to Ohio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. Aside from birds, he maintains a fascination with salamanders, mammals, and anything else with a backbone.
Blake Mathys

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