How to Name a Bird, Part 1

Golden-crowned Sparrow_CosumnesRiverPreserve-CA_LAH_0338What in the world is that bird? Birding someplace new is fun and exciting, but it’s also a challenge. How do you make a trip list if you can’t identify the birds you are seeing?

I normally post a bird ID quiz on the first Monday of the month. Today and next week, I thought I’d share about the mental checklist I go through when I’m trying to ID a bird I don’t immediately recognize.

I get to travel a bit. In addition to field trips here in Colorado, I’ve been birding in southern Texas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and the west coast. I was really excited when we went to Puerto Rico several years ago. We stayed at a friend’s time share ideally situated between a wildlife refuge and a bird sanctuary. I was having so much fun, I almost didn’t notice the 99° temperatures or the 99% humidity. Almost.

Birds get around, but we probably won’t recognize many of the species see when we’re away from home. This fall I’m signed up for a trip to Swaziland, in southeastern Africa. While it isn’t a birding trip (I’ll be working with AIDS orphans), you can be sure I’ll have my eye out for anything with feathers. I’ll have my work cut out for me, dealing with bird families such as thick-knees and coursers, bee-eaters and honey-guides. Having an ID plan will at least get me started in the right direction.

Here’s how I go about identifying an unfamiliar bird, perhaps one I saw in California, shown in the photo at the top of this page.

Where (and when) is it?
Golden-crowned Sparrow_CosumnesRiverPreserve-CA_LAH_0261
The first piece of information is to note place and habitat. You don’t need to know anything about birds to do this. Try to be specific. This bird was in California, at the Cosumnes River Preserve just south of Sacramento. (The preserve protects marshes and fields in California’s central valley, and it was a productive place to go birding.)

Now get even more specific. Is the bird high in the canopy or down low, on or near the ground? Is it in a thicket, perched on a high twig, soaring, or swimming? This bird spent most of its time on the ground, only hopping into some low branches when it was disturbed.

Finally, what time of year is it? Migration is an important factor. So is the way birds change their plumage with the seasons. I saw this bird in March, before it had completely changed into its summer courting feathers.

What is it doing?
This is another characteristic that anyone can notice, regardless of your level of expertise.

Golden-crowned Sparrow_CosumnesRiverPreserve-CA_LAH_0321Watching what a bird does can give you important clues to its identify. Sparrows like to scratch in the leaves. Swallows spend hours zooming through the air in pursuit of bugs. Flycatchers sally forth and return to their perch while warblers never visit the same spot twice—and they never stop moving, either. Spotted Sandpipers bob their tail. Roadrunners and quail prefer running over flying. This bird was definitely hunting bugs in the grass.

Also note if there is more than one bird of the same kind. Some birds travel in flocks while others hang out by themselves. This bird had lots of friends nearby.

Part 2 will appear next Monday. Stay tuned….



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