Invitation to Birding
Earth’s the right place for love,” wrote Robert Frost. Earth is also the right place for birds. Of all the warm-blooded creatures on the planet, there exist roughly twice as many species of birds as mammals. Except for the ocean depths, birds can be found everywhere mammals live—and beyond.
People who take up bird-watching as adults are often amazed to discover just how many birds are out there. Most of us will spot no more than a fraction of the almost 10,000 bird species, but the species visiting your own backyard represent a good beginning. Indeed, the easiest place to watch birds is right at home, especially if you have a good assortment of native trees and shrubs, a bird feeder, and a birdbath. A surprising number of birds can even be attracted to an apartment balcony in the city. Start looking, and you will see: Birds are everywhere, a delight to behold, a pleasure to learn to identify. Why Learn Bird identification?
Recognizing birds may not be necessary to individual survival, but learning about the creatures with which we share this planet, especially our own little corner of it, enhances our daily lives, giving us grace notes of joyful recognition as we travel to new places or look out our own windows, whether the birds we see are comfortably familiar or exciting new discoveries.
Using your senses in new ways enhances your ability to detect birds, and as your awareness grows, your progress accelerates. People with vision or hearing impairments can be excellent birders, locating and identifying birds entirely by either sound or visual cues. Those of us who can use both senses can train our eyes and ears to more easily detect birds with practice. The more birds we see and identify, the simpler it is to find and identify more. Canada Goose
Branta canadensis L 30–43" (76–109 cm) Canada Geese were, until the 1970s, seen in many places only on migration and in winter.
Large dark goose; black neck; white chin strap; paler below.
+ voice: Call is deep but nasal honk-a-lonk.
+ habitat: Common and familiar. Feral birds frequent sub- urban areas, such
as golf courses, parks, reservoirs; wild flocks migrate in V-formation.
+ food: Grazes on grass; eats a variety of pond life and waste grain in rural areas.
Geese are among a handful of birds capable of digesting grass, and so are drawn to expansive lawns. “Honkers” are extremely sociable. Once paired, they usually remain with their mate year-round for life. In winter, they may also maintain social bonds with young from previous seasons. They learn their migratory routes from their parents. When a pair of geese becomes urbanized and remains in a city for the winter, their young often follow suit. Adults undergo a flightless period while molt- ing flight feathers in summer, before their goslings can fly. Goslings can swim and even dive to evade predators within hours of hatching. Barn Swallow
Hirundo rustica L 63⁄4" (17 cm) Barn Swallows build a large cup nest; Cliff Swallows a globe with an entrance hole.
Cobalt blue above and buffy below with a chestnut throat. Long, graceful tail of adult is unlike any other North American swallow; juvenile’s tail is shorter.
+ voice: Series of scratchy, warbling notes and grating rattles.
+ habitat: Summer resident of open areas; shelters its mud nest on man-made structure.
+ food: Flying insects.
Aristotle may have been thinking of this bird when he said, “One swallow does not a summer make.” The most widespread swallow in the world nests under bridges and eaves, and in culverts, barns, and outbuildings. In Minnesota, a pair nested for several years in the lumber section of a home improvement store, hovering in front of the sensor to trigger the door to open so it could pass in and out. New World Barn Swallows once bred only in North America, spending the winter in South America as nonbreeders. In 1980, six pairs nested in Argentina. Now, a South American breeding population is well established. White-throated Sparrow
Zonotrichia albicollis L 63⁄4" (17 cm) Like avian chipmunks, these stripe-headed
sparrows eat seeds on the ground.
Medium-size sparrow with white throat and bright yellow spot near eye. Two color morphs—white-striped and tan-striped— describe the color of the stripe above the eye.
+ voice: Mournful, whistled song is heard year-round.
+ habitat: Breeds in the North; very com- mon in East in winter; frequents bird feeders, brush, woodland edges.
+ food: Seeds, insects.
This sparrow’s clear, whistled Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody is heard in backyards as well as in northern forests where it breeds. Half of both males and females have white head stripes, the other half tan stripes; each prefers the opposite pattern in a mate, as if blond humans always selected a dark-haired mate and vice versa. About 96 percent of all pairs include one of each color. White-striped birds of both sexes sing and are territorially aggressive. Tan-striped birds of both sexes provide excellent parental care. Though tan-striped males are less aggressive than white-striped, their territories in an area tend to be the same size.
Excerpted from National Geographic Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America by Jonathan Alderfer. Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Alderfer. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.