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In this extract from his fascinating new book Birdpedia, Christopher W Leahy explores the subject of bird identification, its history and relevance to birdwatchers of all levels. Birdpedia is a handbook of all things avian – one to dip into over and over.

Well into the twentieth century, bird identification was something that a ‘field ornithologist’ did in his study at the end of a day or when foul weather kept him indoors. Having spent the day exploring the woods and wetland borders, shotgun under arm, eager to live up to [one of the foremost of the American ornithologists of the late nineteenth century] Dr. Coues’s injunction to bag “all you can get”, the first ‘birders’ returned home, measured their specimens, noted the color of their ‘soft parts’, plugged their mouths with cotton, and then set about preparing them as ‘bird skins’. This done, if the collector was puzzled by any of his new acquisitions, he took the specimen in question in one hand, Coues’s Key to North American Birds (or other reliable reference) in the other and proceeded to identify his bird. Did the long-tailed fly-catcher in hand have “three or four primaries emarginate; crown spot yellow in black cap” or merely “one primary emarginate; crown spot flaming in ashy cap”? If the former, it must be a Fork-tailed Flycatcher; if the latter, a Scissor-tailed.


Photo Credit: Rufous-and-white Wrens, Illustration by Abby McBride. The keen ear of a seasoned birdwatcher can identify birds by their song; for others, more visual clues are needed.

Birds are still identified ‘in the hand’ by ornithologists and bird banders [bird ringers in the UK] using keys that systematize measurements or combinations of obscure plumage details. And there are still instances in which taking a specimen may be necessary (if not exactly desirable). However, with the exceptional quality of optical and photographic equipment now available, it is increasingly possible to perceive even minute details of plumage to identify birds along with their age and sex without having the bird ‘in the hand’. It is also true that all masters of field identification have probably put in their time at a banding station or poring over museum trays to gain an accurate sense of what they are looking for. But before the 1920s, identifying birds—especially ‘obscure’ species such as sparrows and ‘fall warblers’—on sight was seldom attempted. About that time Ludlow Griscom [see box below] and a rapidly expanding group of his protégés began to prove that the great majority of bird species could be positively identified in life with the aid of a pair of ‘field glasses’ and a comprehensive knowledge of field marks. This insight, aided by the appearance of illustrated field guides and ever-improving optical equipment, gave rise to a new era in field ornithology now known (with fewer elitist overtones) as ‘birdwatching’.


Photo Credit: Butcherbird, Illustration by Abby McBride. The Butcherbird’s habit of impaling its prey on a sharp thorn can aid positive bird identification.

Birdwatching and its sportier variation, ‘birding’, suggest many things to many people but identifying species is central to everyone’s notion of the activity. Many now-obsessive birders can remember a ‘spark bird’—a Magnolia Warbler glimpsed at scout camp or a Spoonbill noticed on a business trip to Florida—that unaccountably inflamed a dormant curiosity about nature and made them desperate to find a book that would tell them what they had seen. Once you have identified your first bird, it is difficult to stop wondering about this world of hitherto unnoticed beauty that has suddenly materialized or to resist the satisfaction derived from the possession of arcane knowledge and the ease with which herons and ducks, woodpeckers, and orioles yield their identities to your increasingly sophisticated scrutiny in the early months.

But the hook of fascination is not firmly set until the reddest of Northern Cardinals, the most radiant of Yellow Warblers have become just the slightest bit boring and you find yourself scanning the sparrow pages of your field guide; or concluding that all sandpipers suddenly look intriguingly different rather than depressingly alike; or taking an interest in those tiny moving objects near the sea’s horizon that some show-off is presuming to name. For the animus that drives the serious modern birdwatcher is not primarily a yearning for aesthetic thrills or scientific discovery; it is not even the ‘lure of the list’ (though all these may be important ancillary rewards). Rather, it results from the evolutionary accident that many birds look a great deal like many other birds—and successfully parsing the differences combines the thrill of solving a difficult puzzle with achieving a kind of intimacy with other life-forms.


Photo Credit: Flock, Illustration by Abby McBride. The tricky identification of birds in flight can give rise to a great sense of pride in your accumulated knowledge.

This truth soon appears in rudimentary form to the novice birder in the realization that mockingbirds and shrikes, for example, are superficially similar. But the paragon among today’s birders is one who holds in mind every field mark, every call note, every nuance of gesture and posture, every facet of distribution, seasonality, and extralimital occurrence of every species that could possibly paddle, flap, or hop into his line of vision. She knows where, when, and how to look for birds; he sees them and hears them with an acuity astounding to the uninitiated; they identify them at a distance or in motion confidently, rapidly, and (it usually proves) accurately. There is often an air of swagger in the manner of such paragons, but they readily and humbly admit their infrequent errors.

A unique pleasure of being a birdwatcher in the first decades of the phenomenon’s existence was to watch the horizons of field identification pushed back. The legendary Griscom died puzzling over field problems now routinely solved by dedicated preadolescent birders. This casts no disgrace on Griscom’s reputation; it is the logical result of an increased number of sharp eyes, ears, and brains scrutinizing birds in the field with the kind of systematic fervor that Griscom pioneered. One effect of the continual breaking of identification barriers is that rarities become less rare: Have the Eurasian Stints suddenly become more frequent visitors to North America? Probably not, but there are certainly more people around who recognize one when they see it.

Another mark of advancing sophistication is the growing obsolescence of the standard field guides among birders of the upper echelons of birdernity. Members of this airy realm now take their instruction from journals of field ornithology and ‘postgraduate’ field guides that unlock almost all the mysteries of unsongful Empidonax flycatchers and immature gulls and ‘peeps’, and largely ignore ‘fall warblers’, most of which have long since ceased to be confusing to them. There is a grumpiness in some quarters about the alleged snobbery of so-called professional birders. “We,” say the self-styled amateurs, “bird for fun”, the implication being that the better you play the game, the less enjoyable it becomes. This is nonsense, of course, and the goal of total identifiability—however unattainable—is a healthy one, both intellectually and spiritually. If the hyperbirder is exceptionally liable to any character flaws, they are hubris (e.g., listing no unidentified alcids or jaegers for a day’s sea watch) and humorlessness (e.g., discussing the possibility of an intergrade Kumlien’s × Thayer’s Gull with a straight face for more than a few seconds).


Photo Credit: Fossil of Archaeopteryx, Illustration by Abby McBride. Identification of bird-like characteristics in the fossils of Archaeopteryx led to the current favoured theory that birds descended from reptiles known as theropods, but this is disputed, as the section on Evolution of Birdlife in the book Birdpedia reveals.

Those scanning this entry for the ‘how to’ section will be disappointed, for, in the author’s opinion, bird identification skills cannot be taught. There is undeniably a knack to the business, but there are no tricks that can be transferred verbally from one who knows them to one who does not in the way that, say, magicians can share expertise. Everyone must start from scratch, though, in fact, some begin before scratch by being born with keen eyesight and hearing, the most useful of birding faculties, which, unfortunately, are not dispensed equably or available on demand. Making the best of inherited traits, the would-be bird identifier should (1) Buy the best pair of binoculars and the best telescope affordable, learn how to use them as if they were essential prostheses, and keep them in the best condition. (2) Memorize—no, inhale—all available bird guides and all other literature relevant to identification (omitting books that purport to explain how to watch birds). (3) Spend every available minute of your life out looking for birds and examining them critically for their distinctive qualities. (4) Form an intimate friendship with someone as intelligent, as enthusiastic, and approximately as knowledgeable about bird identification as you are. If, after five years of following these guidelines faithfully, you are still saying things like “That Swamp Sparrow is much browner than the one in the book”, you may have to resign yourself to remaining a novice birder for life. Happily, there is no shame in this; looking at birds seems to yield equal pleasure at all levels of expertise.

Ludlow Griscom (1890–1959)

The patron saint of modern American birdwatching. As an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at Harvard, Griscom’s main professional contribution was the elucidation of the Mexican and Central American avifaunas. But the achievement of his life was to show that ‘birding’ did not need to be practiced with a gun—except in cases where field identification is impossible and a specimen is required for the record—and that the great majority of birds can be identified with absolute accuracy by a practiced and intelligent observer. Griscom’s brilliance in the field, his eloquent enthusiasm for the ‘sport’ of field ornithology, and his large circle of protégés (including Roger Tory Peterson – one of the founding inspirations for the 20th century environmental movement) were responsible to a large degree for spawning the legions of present-day birdwatchers and their need for good optical equipment and comprehensive field guides. Griscom’s love of fieldwork is reflected in his best-known works [eg Birds of the New York City Region] which were mainly distributional in nature.

Christopher W. Leahy holds the Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. His books include Birds of Mongolia and The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife (both Princeton).

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist. She travels globally to write and illustrate stories about ecological research for outlets such as National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Birdpedia is available from all good bookshops or directly from Princeton University Press, published July 2021

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