Birding 101

OspreyWhen a beginner birder is with an experienced birder, he or she is often amazed at the experienced birder’s ability to identify a bird after seeing it for a just few seconds. But this is only because the birder knows what to look for on the bird. Think about a Robin and how you know it is a robin. It has an orange breast, right? This orange breast is called a field mark; field marks are characteristics that birders use to identify birds.

Field marks are not just colors on a bird; size, shape, habitat, voice, and behavior are all field marks as well. By recognizing and recording field marks, it can be easy to identify a bird using a field guide, a book with pictures and descriptions of many species. The best place to learn to identify birds, (besides Woodland Dunes Nature Center!) is in your yard where you can spend time observing common species. Although not absolutely necessary when learning identification, binoculars are very helpful for seeing birds better. When you find a bird you do not know, try to spend as much time watching it as possible. A note pad and pencil can be used to jot down notes on what you observe.

Some important field marks to look for are:

Size: It is often helpful to compare the bird in question to a familiar yardstick bird. Is it larger or smaller than a robin? a sparrow? a crow?

Shape: Is the bird’s body slim? Is the tail long or short? How long are the legs or toes? Head shape is greatly influenced by the bill, which may be short and thick in seed-eating birds, long and thin in sandpipers, flat and broad like a duck’s, or hooked at the tip as on a hawk.

Colors and Patterns: Colors are probably the most noticeable field marks for birds, but it is also important to note where the color is placed. Many birds have a colored head, throat, breast, or rump. Often the colors are in distinct patterns like streaks, bars, or spots. Many songbirds have contrasting wing bars, lines of white or another color created by the colored tips of certain wing feathers. Other birds may have white on the tail sides or on the tip of the tail.

Habitat: Most birds prefer a specific habitat for feeding or nesting. Waterfowl prefer lakes or rivers. Robins frequent woodlands and grassy lawns. Rock Doves (pigeons) like both urban and agricultural areas. It is also important to notice where in the habitat the bird is. If the bird is in a woodland area, is it close to the ground or high in the trees? If on a lake, does it remain close to shore or stay out in the middle?

Behavior: While observing the bird, try to note how it acts. Does it catch insects on the wing, or does it probe in the dirt or mud? Does it walk or hop on the ground? Does it fly in a straight line or does it bounce up and down as it flies?

Voice: for many birds, especially songbirds, the voice can be helpful in identification. The song is used to attract a mate or declare a territory and usually consists of multiple notes, while a call is one or at most a few short notes often used to stay in contact with other birds.

Warbler Using what you observe, browse through a field guide and try to find a photo or illustration of a bird that resembles yours. When you find one, check its description and range in the text to see if it matches. But be sure to check all the birds that resemble yours; the text may also mention similar species with which it could be confused. It also helps to spend time looking through a field guide when not trying to identify a bird so that you may become more familiar with a variety of species.

Binocular Basics

Along with a field guide, a binocular is about the only piece of equipment a birder needs. Any binocular is better than no binocular but some models are better for birding than others.

  • Power and size: binoculars are usually described with two numbers: 8 x 40, 10 x 42. The first number is how many times the binocular magnifies what you’re looking at. The second number is the diameter, in millimeters, of the large objective lenses through which light enters the binocular. Most birders use 7x, 8x, or 10x binoculars.
  • Field of view: this term refers to how wide an area you see when you look through a binocular. It is usually expressed as a field width at 1,000 yards, although some manufacturers describe the field of view as an angle. The wider the field of view, the easier it is to scan a large area or to follow a flying bird.
  • Eye relief: is a measure of how far away from the binocular’s eye-piece your eye needs to be. This distance is usually given in millimeters; depending on the binocular it may be from 8 mm up to 24 mm or even more. Longer eye-relief makes binoculars easier and more comfortable to use and is especially important if you wear eye-glasses.
  • Size and fit: It’s important to buy a pair of binoculars that feels comfortable when you use and carry it. If possible, you try out a model in the field before you purchase it. Most birders avoid pocket-sized compact binoculars, but for young birders with little money and small hands, a pair of compacts may be a good option. At the other extreme very large binoculars may be too awkward to carry for a full day of birding.

Price: As with most things, you get what you pay for with binoculars. Most cheap binoculars (less than $80) simply don’t work well enough to do the job in the field. At the other extreme, some models cost around a thousand dollars. These are incredibly rugged and give amazing, sharp images but few beginners are able or willing to pay that much. Many beginning birders spend between $100 and $250 for their first pair.

Birding resources:

American Birding Association: North America’s largest membership organization for active birders and providing leadership to field birders by increasing their knowledge, skills, and enjoyment of birding, and by contributing to bird conservation. Includes recent postings from the Wisconsin Birding List, a listserv on which birders post their sightings of usual and unusual birds, and discussions of birding-related topics.

Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology: A very comprehensive bird-related site that includes Project Feederwatch, eBird, and Great Backyard Bird Count programs, which allow amateur birders to contribute to the scientific study of wild birds.

eBird: an online database of bird observations providing scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance.

Wisconsin Bird Conservation Partnership: A cooperative partnership to deliver the full spectrum of bird conservation emphasizing voluntary stewardship.

Perhaps the greatest man-made threat to songbirds is that posed by free-roaming house cats, which are estimated to kill millions of birds each year.  For more information, go to:

Another major cause of bird deaths is collision with windows.  For tips on preventing window collisions, go to:

OwlWisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II: Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas (WBBA), an on-going project administered by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and the State DNR. The purpose of the WBBA is to provide a permanent record of the bird species breeding in the state.

Wisconsin Society of Ornithology: The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology is a volunteer, nonprofit organization that was established in 1939. Its mission is to promote the enjoyment, study and conservation of Wisconsin’s birds.