About the Author: Joceline spent an idyllic summer with Ashley at Blandy Experimental Farm for an ecology internship where they frolicked amid the farmhouses and the tick-infested fields–you don’t bond harder than when you pull ticks out of someone’s scalp. Ashley is a hardcore birder, 6′ tall (and looks damn good in a maxi dress), vegetarian so that she doesn’t have to eat birds, and lover of all things environmental science. The best anecdote I have (well, one of the best) is the time she made us all leave a party so we could sneak up to a barn and check out the barn owl in its nest.
Last weekend I was wandering around Philadelphia with a few friends that had recently moved to the city. As we were strolling through the historic district, pigging out on ice cream, and people watching (or as Joceline would more fondly call it: creeping), a more interesting subject caught my eye—err—ear. The sound I heard was a short, simple song. Rising in a buzzy trill and ending with a sharp, separate note. I had stumbled upon a Northern Parula. In the city of Philadelphia. In late May. Naturally, I freaked out, pointed him out to all my friends, who of course had no idea what I was talking about, and rightfully so. I’m sure it’s hard to understand a person who is stammering, “WARBLERLATEMIGRATIONSTOPOVERSITEINTHECITYOMGOMGOMG.” I’m used to this reaction.
Looking back on my non-birding days I fondly recall getting excited over cardinals and jays. Seeing a hawk was alright, and seeing a group of vultures circling in the sky obviously meant they were flying over a dead animal of some kind on the ground below (a common misconception). It was easy to assume that there were clearly only a few species of birds (doves, that old owl from Winnie the Pooh, those weird oily-looking birds in parking lots, annoying SEAgulls*) worth my bird-brained attention span (please bear with me on the puns).
It wasn’t until my third year of college until I got schooled. After much frustration in my vertebrate biology class, a very patient professor of mine pointed out simple tips for me to help identify birds (being a biology major is awesome…we had bird ID quizzes every week. I know, you’re jealous.) He pointed out that the American Goldfinch said “Potato chip, potato chip” when it flew. A Warbling Vireo cried “If I sees you I will seize you and I will squeeze you ‘til you squirt!” And my personal favorite: a Barred Owl hooting in a lovelorn stupor “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you alllll!”
Birding wasn’t about being able to pick apart a Wood Thrush from a Veery anymore. It was about understanding a foreign language with hundreds of different dialects. It was about interpreting fascinating behaviors. It was about discovering new species I hadn’t seen before (enter my Life List). It was about swapping stories with other geeks who were just as passionate as I was about our dear feathered friends**.
Now, if I haven’t scared you off with all of that birding banter, congratulations, maybe you’re genuinely interested in learning more (or very bored). If the former, fear not if you’re a beginner. Birding can be very easy and incredibly fun with a few tips!
1. A good birder never wears white.
White is one of the more obvious colors for birds to pick up, especially in forests. Birds are incredibly keen on white, which has evolved some interesting behaviors. For example, baby birds excrete waste in white fecal sacs. To prevent predators from spotting the white color, momma birds easily pick up the neatly packaged poop and dispose of it far, far away. The giant messes left on your cars are most likely from adult birds who no longer need to use fecal sacs.
2. Pay attention to bird behavior, even if the birds you’re looking at aren’t that rare.
Some of the more interesting birds I’ve seen have come from watching bird behavior. While wandering around Philly later that same day, I noticed several restless House Sparrows and Robins chipping and squawking about. Typically this behavior means that there’s a predator looming about and seconds later I was able to point out an extremely close Red-tailed Hawk to my group of friends. This birding tactic has also helped me to spot some very cool species in wooded areas including the elusive Barred Owl and the always adorable Broad-winged Hawk. When birding in more forested areas, also keep an eye out for any sort of movement; some of my favorite warbler experiences have resulted from this!
3. Birds of a feather flock together.
My best birding adventures have always been in groups (it goes without saying that 4+ eyes/ears are more useful than two). Birding with someone more experienced also has its perks. Though there’s always personal pride when you’re able to spot a new life-lister on your own. If you have them, binoculars are always great, but if not, a nicely shined pair of glasses (if needed) works well for beginners.
4. Embrace your inner bird nerd.
People are genuinely interested in birds! While I have gotten some strange looks before for aukwardly stopping (again, forgive me for the puns) in more populated areas to get a better look at a catbird, take pride that you have a fund of knowledge that most people know nothing about! And be prepared to have people ask what you’re looking at…always a great conversation starter.
Being able to appreciate this unique group of animals is one of the more beneficial perks to being a birder. Sure, some of them can be disgusting, some of them can freak you out (I still get nervous when pigeons fly too close to my head), but understanding their unique language is something not many people can do. So the next time you’re strolling in the park, or happen to come across a wooded area or lake, take a second, listen up, and brag to all your friends that you can now successfully point out a key piece of our ecosystems!
*Fact: There is no such thing as a seagull. Spread the word.
**Not all birds are sweet little darlings. Chickadees in hand are the most ferocious little birds. I’ve had cuticles torn off. And Blue Jays (fondly referred to as nature’s assholes) are one of the easier birds to band.