LUnited States Denartment of the Interior Bureau of Biological Survey
Wildlife Leaflet BS- 150
Washington, D. C. January 1940
SUGGESTIONS FOR BIRD FIELD STUDY
By May Thacher Cooke Biologist, Section of Distribution
and Migration of Birds, Division of Wildlife Research
Introduction . . ...... Permanent notes . . . 5
Time to begir. ..................... ....2 Sinificance of the study 5
Equipment. . . . . . 2 Organized study . . . 5
Where and when to go . . . List of books, p eriodicals
Field identifications. . . 4 and pictures. . . . .
The beauty and animation of birds stimulate the student to learn their
names and often lead him from a merely pleasant pastime to a more serious and intensive study. The present popularity of bird study makes the way of the beginner far easier than it was a generation ago. There are manv other students to help him, and a wealth of literr'ture is available for his use. Colored "portraits" of most species of North American birds nre obtainable, as well as manuals for identification, some of which contain field kceys in which the birds are grouped according to color. Phonogaph recordings of the songs of certain birds are now on the market. Many periodicals deal entirely with birds, and some contain local lists and are designed especially to meet the needs of the amateur. State lists have been ond are being published, some elaborately illustrated, giving descriptions of the birds, details of their occurrence, and accounts of their habits. Lists of birds are also being issued for restricted areas. There are now many museums
where mounted specimens of the birds of the region are exhibited and where scientific (study) skins may be examined.
The beginner should always bear in mind that only a part of the birds treated in any standard manual or State list are likely to occur in his immediate locality, and he should accordingly study the local list to learn which ones he can expect to see. If no local list has been published, a list of birds found in his own or in an adjacent State will be helpful.
Time to eginr
Winter or early spring is undoubtedly the best time and late spring or summer the poorest time to begin a study of birds in the field. In
winter, when only the resident species and a few visitants from farther north are about, the student is less bewildered. than when the trees are full of migrants and the foliage makes it difficult to see them distinctly. Winter is a good time to prepare for the time when mild weather and the returning migrants will tempt the student more afield. If a museum is accessible it should be visited as "requently as possible for the study of specimens, so that familiarity may be gained with the general eaoearance, relative sizes, and distinctive characters of various species of birds. Where there are no museum facilities, colored pictures and dercriptions are excellent substitutes.
To persons living outside the city, sometimes even to those within its limits, a feeding shelf or table or a bird bath affords an excellent introduction to the birds, bringing them near at hand where they can be studied at. leisure. The number of kinds visiting a table or bath is usually limited, but the repeated visits of certain individuals lead to familiar acquaintance. I/
A notebook and a nair of field or opera glasses are almost indispensable equipment for field study. Any kind of a notebook can be used, and
the beginner will probably try several before deciding which best suits his particular needs. Several kinds of bird notebooks are published, varying from those with mere lists of names to be checked to those providing a page for each species with an outlineof a bird on which color notes may be made and several headings under which ob ervations maj be recorded.
Because of their larger field of vision and greater ease of focusing, opera glasses are considered easier for beginners to use than are the higzher-oowered field glasses, especially when it is considered that a beginners identifications are usually made at relatively close range. As observations become more extensive, however, and finer distinctions must be looked for, the need for a stronger glass will be felt. When buying a field glass, it is advisable to get one of at least 6-power magnification with a wide field of vision. Good field glasses are not chern, and it is well to compared several pairs of various makes before purchasing. "Snotting" telescopes now on the market are often useful in identifying water birds that must be studied at considerable distances.
A pocket manual or guide will be a convenience. By its use birds may be looked un and identified on the soot, and sometimes a check on special markings, call notes, songs, and actions can be made, thus making sure of the identification and impressing the distinguishing characters on the memory.
1/ Wildlife Research and Management Leaflet BS-8 lists publications on attracting birds.
Where and When to Go
It is seldom necessary to go far afield to find at least a few birds, City folk may find them in small city parks, while the suburban or rural dweller has them in his dooryard. Experience will soon show which are the most favorable places for finding birds. In general, the more diversified the territory the greater the number of species of birds. The edges of woods, or the banks of a brushy stream, alternating with open fields and orchards, offer the greatest variety. Deep woods, either rine or hardwood, have few birds, but large clearings within forests may -orove to be good places. OOen woods, predominantly hardwood and not too extensive, are usu-. ally good, particularly during migration. Lake shores and the seashores, if somewhat brushy, usually show an abundance of bird life.
In winter, birds are likely to be found sheltered from the wind in brushy hollows, generally those open to the south, or near bodies of water where the air temperature is more uniform. As he becomes more experienced, the bird student will vary his trins afield, going to various localities at certain seasons to look for sp-ecies oreviouslv seen there.
The best times for making observations are early in the morning and late in the afternoon when birds are feeding and active. It is not, however, necessary to be out at dawn unless a long trip is planned. In fact, the jumble of song that follows the awakening of the birds and recedes their morning search for food is likely to be confusing. Even in summer, birds are usually active until about 11 o'clock in the morning and again during the 2 hours before sunset, but are more quiet and retiring during the middle of the day. In winter and earlr in spring, ho,,ever, they are most active during the warmer part of the day.
Weather, time of day, and season affect the preference of birds for
certain areas. Early in the morning they are moot likely to freauent fields and orchards, and later in the day the- will be found along the warm, sunny edges of the woods. In windy weather birds are retiring and silent, usually keening under cover in the le of the woods; a blustering day, therefore, is not a good one for observations.
When watching birds afield an observer should be alone or with only one or two comoanions and should speak only in undertones. He should avoid all cons-oicuously colored clothing and should move slo-lv and as quietly as nossible. He should often stand still, listening and looking, or conceal himself by leaning against a tree, or sit down and let the birds come to him.
Birds may, often be attracted close to the observer by squeakingg" (imitating the call of a young bird) or by means of mechanical bird calls now on the market. The observer should have the sum at his back, if -oossible, for it is practically impossible to distinguish the color of a bird seen against the
light, since even as brilliant a bird as the scarlet tanager may then aooear black.
The beginner should not attemot to see and learn too much at one time. At first, he should pay attention 'only to the more conspicuous birds and
songs, taking careful notes on a few species at a time and not trusting to memory. His first notes will probably pertain entirely to the identification of the bird, later ones being added on song, flight, feeding, and other habits. An outline drawing of the bird, how ever crude, with notations on it of color or special markings as seen, is a great help in identification. Such a drawing, with notes as to size, gives the information desired for identification without ambiguity in use of terms. Notes on size, as
"larger" or "smaller" than well-known birds, as the robin and English sparrow, make Pod bases for comparison. After a bird has been satisfactorily identified, the student should study its de-cription, memorizing the diagnostic markings. He should also read as much as possible of hat other observers have found out about its habits, and type of country in which it
is most likely to be found, its breeding and winter ranges, and its seasonal occurrence in his locality.
The beginner will do well at first to confine his efforts to identifying birds by sight, making no special attempt to learn their songs. He will soon find that the commoner and more striking songs have unconsciously become familiar. When giving special attention to songs, however, he should
not let one pass without identifying it by name if possible. To some persons words or some fort of graph convey the best impression of a song and are readily entered in the notes; to others the tone quality and rhythm best express it. Songs must be learned individually; no universally satisfactory way of describing them has -et been invented. Many persons, especially those who are near-sighted or who have a kcen ear for music, find it easier to detect and recognize birds by song than by sight. Call notes or songs often reveal the presence of birds that might otherwise be ovrlooked.
A double system of note kee' ing is almost a necessity--(l) a daily list or notes made in the field and (2) a permanent record to which they can be transferred. For the latter a loose-leaf notebook has generally been found most satisfactory, the sheets, one for each species, being arranged either according to the Check List of the American Ornithologists"'nion or alphabetically, as is most convenient. Each sheet is headed with the name of the
species, and each day's records a'e entered in chronological order, including date and olace of observation. Notes on the nature of the localityr visited, and on temperature, wind, and other weather conditions may be incorporated or keot in a separate journal. With such a system the notes on each soecies for a season or a lifetime can readily be brought together. In addition, some observers keep a file of the daily lists of birds observed, with notes on date, locality, time afield, weather, and other pertinent data.
Significance of the Stud.y
Since ornithology7 is primarily a field studv,a careful amateur will be able to help a professional. He may be called upon for notes on his observations on the dates of arrival and departure of birds, or on their nesting habits and other phases of their life history, or for assistance in banding.
Photography is another phase of study open to amateurandprofessional
alike. As the.student comes to understand the possible significance of his work its relation to that of other people, his enjoyment and interest will grow, and he will find much in common with other nature lovers to whom the bird is neither a specimen nor a problem, but something alive, to be watched and enjoyed for its life and beauty.
An amateur, however, Imust temper his enthusiasm with caution. He
should bear in mind that the first essential of field work is .exact observation, and that snap judgnent should be carefully avoided. Field observation therefore must be supplemented by study. A student should be thoroughly familiar with his local bird list and know the deoscriotions and the seasons of occurrence of the birds regularly found in his vicinity. The importance of State or .local lists can hardly, be too much stressed. Ignorance of its status in a given locality, may cause a student to misidentify a rare snecies. This apolies also to the commoner birds that may occur before or after their regular season. Even a more advanced student should taoe care to make exact notations of the markings of an unusual soecies. Then, if challenged, he can defend his identification.
The bird lovers of a community will soon come to knowr one another and will fiAd that some form of organization, however informal, will be very helpful to them. Besides stimulating their own interest, it will helo to arouse interest in others. Meetings for the exchange and compari.son of experiences may create a rivalry in observation and at the same time serve as a c.heck on bird students inclined to be over-enthusiastic in tha makin_ of large daily lists. If no authoritative local list is available, the cornmbined records of a community grou-n will soon provide the nucleus for one. Arrangements should then be made for its orepa*ration and publication.
C-rouo study should be organized, both indoors and in the field, and
nature study in the schools should be encouraged and assisted. Meetin,7s and lectures also should be arranged to stimulate oub.lic interest. A group library may be formed, or the local public library may be urged to purchase good books on birds.
M:any St-te bird clubs or associations publish a mimeographed or orinted journal. Information about these may be obtained from the State game or conservation agency or from the National Association of Audubon Societies, 1006 Fifth Avenue, Yew York City. Assistance in forming a local club may also be obtoined,-from the latter.
The conservation of birds may be furthered by inducing the local authorities to set aside a certain aron, a small park or clot of wild land, -s a sanctuary. The bir. refuge will soon become a cl7ce of intorest qid will be the moans ,of awakening the local public to the general need for conservation of wild Life..
Lists of Books Periodicals and Pictures
Following are brief lists that will be especially useful to the
beginner. A more detailed list will be found in Leaflet 3-787, Aids for Bird Study, which may be obtained free on request to the Piolo ical Survey Decartment of the Interior, Washington, D. C.
Allen, A. A. The Book of Bird Life. D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., New York,
Bailey, F. M. Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. Houghton
Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass. $6.
Baynes, 7. H. Wild Bird Guests. B. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1. Y. $2.
Bralliar, F. Knowing Birds through Stories. Funk & Wagnalls Co., New
York, :T. Y. $2.
Chapman, F. M. Bird Life. D. Apoleton-Century Co., eTow York, Y. ". 5.
-------Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. D. Anrleton-Century
Co., New,,, York, N. V. $5.
Hoffman, R. A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern Ne'w York.
Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass. Cloth $3; pocket edition, fabricoid, $4.
----------Birds of the Pacific States. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass.
Lincoln, F. C. The Migration of American 3irds. Doubleday, Doran & Co.,
Garden City, F. Y. $4.
Mathews, F. S. Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music. G. P. Putnam's
Sons, New York, NT. Y. $3.50.
Morris, P. A. Nature Photography around the Year. D. Appleton-Century
Co. New York, N. Y. $4.
National Geographic Society. The Book of Birds. 2 vols. National Ceographic Society, Washington, D. C. $5.
Peterson, R. T. A Field Guide to the Birds. Houghton Mifflin Co., oston,
---------The Junior Book of Birds. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass. t2.
Reed, C. A. Bird Guide (in two artss: Part I, %later Birds, Game Biris and
Birds of Prey East of the Rockies; Part II, Land Birds East of the
Rockies. Doubleday, Doran Co., Garden City, N. Y. Cloth, per nart,
$1.25; fabricoid, Der part, $1.50.
Reed, C. K. Western Bird Guide. Doubleday, Doran & Co., -arden City, 7T. .
Saunders, A. A. A Guide to Bird Songs. D. Appleton-Century Co., New York,
,T. Y. .2.50.
Wyman, L. E., and Burnell, E. F. Field Book of Birds of the Southwestern
United States. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass. Cloth, $2.50;
Bird- anding. Quarterly. Charles 3. Floyd, 210 South St., oston, Mass.
Bird-Lore. Bi-monthly. Bird-Lore, 10GE Fifth Ave., Te,, York, N. Y. $1.50.
Bird Portraits in Color: Two Hundred Ninety-five Torth American Snecies.
Nlith brief descriptions by Thomas S. Roberts. University of Minncsota
Press, Minneapolis, Minn. Cloth, $3.50; limo cloth, $2.50; in portfolio without text, $1.50.
Birds of New York. Plates. University of the State of Yew York, Albany,
Educational Leaflets, Bird Ch~rts;, and Pictires ir Color. National
Association of Audubon Societies, 1006 Fifth Ave., Tew York, T. 7.
Fifty Common Birds of Farm and Orchard. (Color illustrations.) T. S.
Dent. A-r., Farmers' Bulletin 513. Superintendent of Doc-uments,
Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. 25 cents.
JNjVERSITY OF FLORIDA 3 1262 08928 0050