Everyday Gardeners

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Secrets to Better Birding

Imagine my excitement to find a new bird book by my friend Kenn Kaufman waiting in my mailbox this week. Kenn’s the originator of the Kaufman Field Guide series, which includes books on birds, butterflies, mammals, and insects. He has also written Lives of North American Birds and two birding memoirs, Flights Against the Sunset and the classic Kingbird Highway. His new book, the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), deserves a spot on your natural history book shelf. Anyone with a keen interest in identifying birds will find this book makes the learning process more enjoyable—and that truly understanding what we see and hear can make birding more fun. That’s a shot of me (above) and my former art director Jarrett Einck on a birding trip with Kenn a couple of years ago at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

To celebrate the publication of Kenn’s new book and in honor of Earth Day, here are Kenn Kaufman’s top 10 secrets to become a better birder:

1.  Put birds in boxes. No, not literally. But if you can separate birds into categories, the challenge becomes much simpler. If you can decide that a particular bird is a woodpecker, for example, then you only have to choose among a handful of species, instead of hundreds.

2.  Check the map, check the calendar. Although free-flying birds might show up almost anywhere, usually they are predictable. One of the most valuable resources you can get is a local bird checklist that tells you which species are found nearby, and at what seasons. It’s a tremendous advantage to know which birds to expect.

3.  Always look for multiple clues. In the early stages of learning, it’s tempting to settle on one diagnostic mark on a particular bird and ignore everything else about it. But this can backfire in a variety of ways. Top be sure, always look for other marks as a backup.

4.  Exercise you ears. You can train yourself to be a better bird-listener. When you hear a new bird song, try to describe it to yourself in words; the effort to describe it will help you to remember it.

5.  Shape up your birding. One of the best field marks for any bird is its shape: with enough experience, you can identify most North American birds by silhouette alone. When you’re looking at a bird that’s easy to recognize by its color or markings, take an extra minute to notice its bill shape, tail length, head size, and other aspects of shape. Then you’ll know that bird if you see it in an odd plumage or in odd light.

6.  Look at fliers. Birds fly—that’s one of the cool things about them. But many birders tend to avoid looking at flying birds, because it’s harder to see standard details on a little bird that’s moving fast in the air. Make the effort to study birds in flight, and soon you’ll be recognizing more of what you see.

7.  Fanfare for the common birds. Finding a rare bird—well, that’s exciting. But to recognize that rarity when it shows up, it helps if you know the common birds extremely well. Paying attention to the most common, everyday birds will pay off in helping you to pick out something different.

8.  Write it down. The most valuable learning tool for birding—more important than binoculars or field guide—is a pocket notebook and pencil, so that you can take notes on the spot. Not just the names of birds, but details about what they’re doing or what they look like. (If you’re brave enough to sketch the birds, that’s even better.) Concentrating enough to write about or draw a bird will hjelp to fix it in your memory.

9.  Spend more time looking. Many birders spend 95 percent of their field time looking FOR birds, and only 5 percent looking AT birds. The surest way to improve your skills is to shift those percentages: don’t stop looking at a bird as soon as you know what it is; instead, take a little more time studying each one. Birds are beautiful to look at anyway, so this isn’t exactly a grim assignment!

10.  Learn to let some get away. No one can recognize EVERY bird they see or hear—even the top experts have to let some go unidentified. So don’t worry if you can’t put a name on every bird. The important thing is to have a good time. Birding is something that we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder.

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