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Identifying Birds

( Originally Published 1910 )



To many uninitiated persons the difficulties of identifying and recognizing birds seem insurmountable. " All I can see," said someone to me, " is a speck, and then a streak of something flying, and it is gone. They all look alike to me." That is about the way I talked to a fisherman with whom I was out thirty miles off Cape Cod, having great times catching big codfish, haddock, hake, and halibut, and watching Mother Carey's chickens and shearwaters and the school of finback whales which were spouting close around us.

His eyes, though, were more for vessels than for birds. The fleet of " shore fishermen were scattered about for miles over the " Rocky Grounds," in about eighteen fathoms of water. Various craft were dimly in sight or out of sight to me miles off in the dim haze.

" Hullo, if there ain't Rufe Nickerson 'way down to the sou'west! " he would ejaculate. " He's got a good breeze from the no'th-east. And there's Cy Eldredge hove to, 'way inshore, getting some fish, too ! "

By dint of straining my eyes and my imagination, I was able, after quite a while, to say, truthfully, that I saw them, or rather some boats. I should not have noticed them unless I had been told they were there, but for the life of me I couldn't have told whether it was Rufe or Cy, or Patrick or Vincenzo.

" I don't see how you can tell," I said. He laughed, and replied that it was as plain as day. That one had a new mainsail, the other's jib set flat, and there were a lot of other points too numerous to mention and too inconspicuous to attract the notice of a stranger, even when they were alongside, to say nothing of miles away and hull down.

The fact was that the fisherman's eyes were trained to that sort of thing, and it was perfectly distinct to him, though an utter bewilderment to the novice. So it is, in a measure, with the birds. Some of them we encounter at dose range, and they are so considerate as to delay long enough to give us a good look. But others seem constitutionally unable to "be aisy," or are exceedingly shy, and give the observer but a fleeting glimpse. The latter may be quite enough if the bird has any distinguishing peculiarity. If not, it will be evident to the trained observer to what family the bird belongs, if he has had any sort of fair though fleeting glance at it. One can in time come to know so well the " cut of the jib " or the " set of the sail" that it is not necessary to stare into the eyes ten feet away to know whether it is Cy or Rufe.

Size, form and manner of flight tell a great deal, even before we can distinguish color. The use of their wings by birds in flight varies very greatly. The chimney swift moves its wings quite rapidly and continuously, with intervals of gliding, and they are shaped long and narrow throughout. The little hum mer has long narrow wings, but they are very tiny and move so fast as to blur to the sight. The swallow's wings are pointed and broader at the base than the swift's, nor do they move quite so fast or so irregularly. The nighthawk, "hawking" about overhead, is larger, and the long wings have a noticeable bend, with a white bar on each. The meadowlark, with short, rounded wings, flutters and sails alternately. The kingbird poises with rapidly quivering, extended wings, as does the kingfisher, but when the latter starts on, it proceeds with rather slower and more decisive flappings. Most sparrows and finches have a quick, continuous flight, with rapid wing-beats in succession and short pauses, but some, like the gold-finch, go by jerks, rising and falling in deep undulations, usually calling as they fly, as though each jerk forced air through the larynx. The woodpeckers also have a wavy flight, but they are larger, and can be readily distinguished.

The warblers are slender little birds with a sort of flickering flight. The cuckoos have a rather steady, gliding progression, and a very noticeable length of tail. The blue jay's long tail attracts notice, and he progresses by a regular series of flappings. His relative, the crow, goes by a slow, regular series of separate wing-beats, but sometimes he sails, and for the moment would make one think he was a hawk, till he starts on again.

Birds likewise reveal themselves through positions in standing, and in their paces or other motions. Flycatchers and bluebirds stand very erect, as do thrushes and the cedar waxwing. But the flycatcher soon reveals himself by darting out after an insect. The thrush stands still for quite a while, in the woods, unless it be a robin, while the bluebird will more likely take an apple tree, fence, or wire, and he is smaller than the robin. The waxwing has a pronounced crest and usually goes in flocks. The spry movements in the foliage will distinguish a warbler from the sedate vireo.

The blackbird walks, as do the larks, starlings, pipits, oven-birds, and water thrushes, while the robin, sparrows, and others, usually hop. The fox sparrow, the thrasher and the chewink scratch away among the dead leaves, but the variegated chewink can never be mistaken for the other brown bird, nor could the fox sparrow for the big thrasher, even if he had not left for the north before the thrasher arrives. The birds that climb thereby distinguish themselves from all others. One will know that the nuthatch is not a woodpecker when he persists in running down-hill on the tree-trunk. The slender brown creeper, climbing in upward spirals, appears different from the robust woodpecker, and the black and white creeper or warbler will not be taken for the brown creeper because it is so distinctly black and white, as well as because it leaves the trunk to investigate the various branches.

As I have already said, it will be of great help to learn the principal groups and families of birds in a general way, and their peculiarities. But when it comes to singling out the particular bird, especially members of the finch or warbler families, and tracing them up, there is really no royal road, save the good old-fashioned way of active following up, careful and alert, noting characteristics of form, color, and marking, and looking it up in the book, unless one is fortunate enough to have experienced friends to whom, or with whom, one may go. Though bird study and a good many other things in these days have their difficulties reduced to the lowest terms, we have not reached the epoch yet when everything is done for us.

I am reminded of the remark of a friend of mine, an expert ornithologist. He was kindly undertaking to show me, in a region new to me, the haunts of certain not common warblers, with a view of finding their nests. Arriving in a large area of small scrubby growth bordering some woods, we heard the desired birds sing, and saw them.

" Here they are," said he, " and the only way I know of to find their nests is to work. They may be nesting in or under any one of these million or so of bushes and weed-clumps, and if you wish to find them you've got to look in each place till you strike what you are after." This is over against the idea which some beginners have that an " expert " with birds can do or see anything he wants.

Remember that bird-study at its best, followed thoroughly, is an active, manly sport, or else it would not appeal to vigorous youth. So don't let us hear any weak repinings about the bird not waiting to give you a good look. So much the worse for you, if you missed it; you will have to try again. Maybe an-other time you will have better luck. The bird may happen to come your way just right. Or, at the first meeting, you may have blundered by being too precipitate or making too much noise. Some birds are shy and always hard to approach. Get your ingenuity unlimbered and try some cunning scheme. If the bird will not let you come to it, try to make it come to you. One way is to hide or keep still and let it come your way, or else have someone go around and drive it toward you.

And do not, I pray, complain that you cannot get where the bird is,- that is a pitiable confession of weakness, unless excused by a real physical disability! If the fastness be a morass, get on the rubber boots and go in, even if, perchance, a slip should make it " all over." Never mind, there are dry clothes at home, soap is cheap, and you will not catch cold while exercising. If by any chance you are of the dignified kind, honestly, a tumble into a mud-hole would do a world of good.

The various haps and mishaps are part of the fun,all helping to make up the harmless and exciting game. Only persist, and you will be climbing by leaps and bounds into intimacy with the birds, and ere you know it you will be numbered among the expert and knowing. I know ladies who are very excel-lent ornithologists, and can recognize birds accurately as fast as they come into sight or hearing. Very many ladies and girls are studying birds, and it is as good for them as for men.

In meeting and getting a good look at an unfamiliar bird, it is an excellent plan to write in the field note-book at once a brief description of the main characteristics of the bird so as to have accurate data for looking it up at home. The memory cannot al-ways be trusted, and it is surprising how much one can forget or overlook. Unless things are written down, there will almost surely be various points, in referring to descriptions, about which one is hazy. Moreover, the very effort of writing sharpens the power of observation and makes the description the more complete. With a good description in hand, one will have data to follow out the arrangements in the keys in the works on ornithology. Some keys are based primarily on coloration, so the task will be easier in cases where the bird has pronounced colors or markings.

Unfortunately not all birds are thus distinct. Especially in the cases of the young, some species are very much alike. This is notably true of the sparrows. Even though the parents may have no markings on the under-parts, it is characteristic of young sparrows to have them. Most of them lack the distinctive markings of their parents, and seem to be just a dull, nondescript mixture of varying dull browns, apparently much the same in one as in the other. This is particularly true of them in summer, but the atmosphere of doubt tends to clear as they pass from their " juvenal " plumage to the next more mature.

The young of warblers, too, are often puzzling. Fortunately some have the distinctive characters of the species, such as the general yellow hue of the yellow warbler, or the yellow on the tail of the female redstart. But the young of the common blackpoll and of the rarer bay-breast are so very similar that they can hardly be told apart unless the bird is shot and in the hand, and none too easily even then. In such a case we may simply accept the limitations of bird-study without a gun. It is no great matter if we fail to " round up " every bird that we see. Even the collector cannot get every specimen which he tries to capture.

The few who make scientific research their life work can secure collecting permits from the State. As it is, though we might identify more birds by shooting them, most of us would lose more than we should gain by so doing. For myself, to shoot every blackpoll I might meet on a fine September day in the woods to prove that there was a bay-breast among them would not only be valueless, but utterly repulsive to my better feelings, spoiling the day and the trip.

This will suggest limitations also as to the matter of scientific record. A " form " or " sub-species " could hardly be distinguished without collecting the bird, and, even then, in some cases, " examining it in a correct northern light," as they put it ! Without the gun we cannot expect to distinguish the so-called bronzed and purple grackles, nor always with it, for that matter. Whether the distinction in these forms holds or not is mainly a question of interest to those who are making certain technical studies. For the vast majority of us it is quite sufficient to call it a crow blackbird.

In the case of the supposed occurrence of a very rare bird, or one new to the region, of course the specimen in possession would prove the record. When the bird is merely seen, much will depend upon circumstances whether or not it can count as a record. If it is very distinct in appearance, easy to recognize, and is seen by a person familiar with the species, it may be accepted, whereas of a puzzling species, or of supposed rare records made by the absolute novice, there would be room for doubt. This need not trouble bird-lovers of modest attainments. They are not burning with zeal to astonish the scientific world with new records. The study of birds for its own sake is abundantly worth while. We do not need to be anthropologists to enjoy our fellows, nor learned scientists to exult in our experiences with birds.



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