What's That Bird? (Final part)
by Mike Lushington
So you have been watching the activity around your feeders while having your morning coffee. Suddenly you see a bird that you don't recognize. You grab your handy bird guide and start flipping through the pages, trying to find something that matches what you are seeing through your window, or perhaps your binoculars. This is when you realize just how many birds are featured in the average birding guide (The National Geographic Guides that I tend to rely on feature nearly one thousand - many of which will be possible sources of confusion for you.) Instead, let's assume that you have a nodding acquaintance with the regular birds that come to your feeders, or that you see in the back yard or wherever you happen to have encountered this bird. Teach yourself to ask the following questions before you even think of grabbing that guide. The first is how big is your puzzle in relation to (a) a chickadee, (b) a sparrow, (c) a robin or blue jay,(d) a crow, or (e) something larger? These common birds all provide very handy bench marks for you to compare this bird to.
Second, just what is the bird doing? Is it feeding, preening, loafing around or whatever? Where is it doing it - that is, in a tree, near the trunk or out on an exposed limb; or on a nearby fence; or on the ground? Watch the bird for as long as possible, especially if it is a small feeder bird, or a warbler - it might not stick around for very long and you want to learn as much about it as you can in the time you have. Getting a sense of how it is behaving can be very helpful. Next, try to study, and, if possible, make notes (even mental notes) about the any particulars of the bird's appearance. Start with the bird's head and work backwards in as systematic a fashion as it permits. Does its head seem large in relation to the rest of its body? Is it rounded, or does it have a crown or crest? Is the eye large or small in relation to the rest of the head? What is the general size and shape of the beak? Does the bird seem to be relatively long and slender, or short and squat in its body build? Do the wings have any particular bars, spots, stripes or other markings? How long are they in relation to the end of the bird's tail? How long is the tail itself in relation to the rest of the bird's body? Does it pump or move its tail in any sort of regular pattern as it sits? (This action immediately reduces tour candidate to a very few possibilities.) How long do the legs seem to be? If the bird is sitting, is it sitting upright or does it seem to lean forward?
You have probably noticed that I have not paid attention to colors. If they are conspicuous, fine, but keep in mind that colors can very often be affected by the quality of the light and therefore misleading, sometimes to the point of distraction. this, perhaps surprisingly, is especially so if the bird happens to be in bright sunlight. That brilliant throat that gives the Ruby-throated hummingbird its name can appear dark black in bright sunshine, and the under wings of a crow or raven can appear distinctly silver. Deep shadow or shade provides its own set of challenges as well in trying to determine color patterns. Shape, on the other hand, remains quite consistent and can be reliable even at considerable distances.