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How to Identify Birds

My recent post here about my love/hate relationship with Slaty-backed Gull, got me thinking about being a birder. “Birder” is a pretty wide net, but I think the one thing—or a main thing—that defines a birder is the desire to identify the birds we see.

From there, many other forms of inquiry and enjoyment may flow, but I think “learning your birds” is the pilot light.

I started birding at an early age, and became absolutely consumed by birding. By the time I was 15 I was comfortably identifying the birds of the United States and Canada. A few years later, I became involved in tropical conservation, and had a somewhat short, but torrid affair with tropical frogs. For the next 20 years, I was birding, certainly (you can’t just turn it off)—but I was also herping and trying to make it as a freelance wildlife photographer. The birds of my native Illinois were playing second fiddle to Pompadour Cotingas, Saki Monkeys, and Proscopid grasshoppers.

Let’s move forward another 10 years … I’m back in Chicago, with a steady job and soon to be married. Which brings me to Ring-billed Gulls.

I started birding heavily again in the local patch where I grew up: Chicago’s Lincoln Park. One of the most common birds to be found there is Ring-billed Gull. They breed, they winter, they loaf. I found a bird that didn’t look “right” to me, with dark eyes, and bluish bill and feet. I tried to make it a Mew Gull. I tried to make it a Common Gull. In the end, it was just another Ring-billed Gull. But that bird started me on a two-year odyssey of studying Ring-billed Gulls. Or maybe I should say, re-learning what I once knew…

Namely, that sub-adult Ring-billed Gulls can look like anything. They can have all-dark tails. White tail with a crisp terminal band. They can be mostly chocolate brown. Or crisp and brightly patterned. They can have dark bills, pink bills, blue bills … but they always look like Ring-billed Gulls.

That Ring-billed Gull.

That Ring-billed Gull.

During this period many years ago, I was tossing birds that seemed unusual to me out for discussion at ID Frontiers. After the third or fourth one, one of the old grumps replied something like, “You’re never going to find a Common Gull on Lake Michigan, so please stop wasting our time.” However, Alvaro Jaramillo replied (and I paraphrase, because I can’t find the original email), “You’re going about this exactly as you should. Keep studying those Ring-billed Gulls. When a Mew or a Common Gull shows up, you’ll know it instantly.”

And that’s how you identify birds: familiarity. Study the common birds. Learn the fundamental characteristics of the common species.

It’s more than memorizing field marks. It’s knowing birds the way you know your family and close friends. There was a study done in the 70s where they had subjects try to recognize people at distances. The upshot was that what we recognize goes way beyond just the features of someone’s face, or other “field marks”. For example, one subject could recognize his sister walking down a crowded sidewalk at a distance where he could not make out her features. But, every time, he could recognize her by her height and the way she walked, and how she walked through the crowd. She didn’t like being in crowds, and habitually walked along the curb, as though it were a tightrope.

Just like watching birds in the treetops. A backlit warbler flitting high above gives you just enough of a glimpse to see that it is relatively long-tailed. It flits from branch to branch and your brain has already weeded out the more short-tailed possibilities, like Black-throated Green Warbler. It stops directly over your head for a second or two, but in that brief time, where all you can see is the shape of the bird’s tail hanging over a branch, it does a little side-to-side movement … swishing it’s tail left-right-left before moving on. All this happens in about 5 seconds, but you know the bird because of that little side-to-side tail swish: American Redstart.

It goes beyond becoming familiar with the birds, too. Become familiar with the habitats. A spring woodland has “a sound”. In the Great Lakes where I’m from, there’s the ubiquitous droning of Red-eyed Vireo and non-stop melody of American Robin. The sharp-sweet bursts of American Redstart. The haunting flute of a Wood Thrush and the slurry-burry song of a Scarlet Tanager. The buzzing crescendo of a Northern Parula. You learn these songs, and they become part of the bigger ensemble that becomes familiar … so that when the Cerulean Warbler sings overhead, you stop and pay attention.

By the way, I’ve become enamored of a fantastic little tool on my iPhone for learning and remembering bird songs: Michael O’Brien’s Larkwire. Check it out. There is not a more fun, easy and effective tool for learning bird vocalizations that I’ve run across.

There’s a birding term—GISS* (or “jizz”)—which stands for “general impression, size, and shape”. Gestalt. More than the sum of it’s parts (or field marks). Basically, getting a feel for a species. In The Shorebird Guide, by O’Brien (that guy again), Crossley and Karlson, the authors lay it out simply:

“Instead of skipping straight to plumage details, …base identifications first and foremost … on relative size, structure, behavior and voice … start with the basics. All these characteristics are far less variable than plumage details and are therefore a more reliable starting point for identification. In fact, virtually any shorebird can be identified solely on the basis of these fundamental characteristics.”

That holds true for all birds. Fundamental characteristics: no matter what it looks like, a Ring-billed Gull always looks like a Ring-billed Gull. Have a look through these…

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* GISS, a WWII acronym used by plane spotters, stands for General Impression, Size and Shape.

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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