Friday, January 14, 2011

Appreciating a bird's curves

Having recently moved to a new apartment I have for the first time in a very long time some decent armchair birding opportunities. Not only do I have trees outside my windows, but my patio window and balcony are now set up with an array of feeders so I can lure the birds to me (while I sup on a beverage of my choosing). Perfect! 

My first morning in my new place I was up before dawn and waiting with coffee in one hand and binoculars in the other. The feeders had been hung the night before, filled with irresistible foods, at least I hoped that would be the prevailing view of the local avian community. I was delighted to see that my window was east facing and I would have front-row seats to the sunrise each day (or at least during the middle of winter when said event happens at a reasonable hour). 

Shortly after sunrise, my first feathered friends started to arrive at the feeders and I realised my set up was not as ideal as I had initially thought. With the sun directly behind them, all the birds were silhouettes, I had terrible views. I quickly realised my dreams of sitting enjoy the birds at the feeder over my early morning coffee before work had just been reduced to bird shadow puppetry. 

Downy Woodpecker

Eventually, however, it dawned on me that this could well be a blessing in disguise, or at the very least that there was a silver lining to this cloud. One thing that you often hear from experienced bird watchers, or in bird identification guides, is the importance of focusing on form and function when trying to ID a bird. Size, shape, behaviour, bill structure, etc, should all be noted and taken into account. Not only does this ensure you make a sound identification, but it also provides you with a deeper connection to the way the bird interacts with it's environment. 

Beginning bird watchers typically instinctive focus on plumage, and that seems to make a lot of sense, but it isn't necessarily the most productive approach. A bird's plumage can undergo huge transformations as a bird progresses through molts, and is frequently subject to considerable individual variation. It can also look quite different depending on the ambient lighting. As such, it can often be a misleading guide and is best considered alongside the many aspects of the bird, which are typically more reliable. If you ask an experienced birder to talk you though a identification problem that a beginner would find tough, say shorebirds or sparrows, you might be surprised how much emphasis they place on shape, size and bill shape. They seem to only look at the plumage once they have already narrowed down the options to just a handful of birds.

I've started to enjoy my early morning feathery shadow puppet show. Some of my regulars, such as the Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Nuthatch and American Goldfinch are easy to pick out now. I do feel like I'm starting to spot their familiar silhouette from a distance when out and hiking with greater ease. It's a valuable skill, it means you don't have to be close enough to see the plumage clearly to identify many of the birds you see. Some of the birds at the feeder can be a little more tricky to identify. Learning to separate House Sparrows from House Finches by shape alone was initially tricky and necessitated a closer look at both those birds. I feel like I know them both better already. 

Have a crack at it yourself, if you feel inclined. Here are some shots taken at my feeders. If people are interested I can let you know the answers in the comments at a later point. 

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit C

Exhibit D

Exhibit E


  1. wow I love Love Love these pictures!!!

  2. Yay this is fun! Totes want to know what they are and see if I'm right!