"An Idiot's Guide To Ornithology"

The recent extraordinary growth in popularity of Birdwatching as a hobby and the wave of interest in exploring, protecting and learning about the environment seem to be symptoms of a single desire: to become part of the natural world. I would like this involvement and participation in Birdwatching to be un-intimidating and easy, so with Elbert's help I have put together a few thoughts and helpful hints that might gently introduce the novice or even the complete idiot to the Avian world.

    We will begin by clarifying what a Birdwatcher is...already it gets confusing! There are a few terms we should define first.

ORNITHOLOGIST- It simply means a person who studies birds, a term usually reserved to describe those serious scientific types that have some sort of degree in the subject and thus a rightful claim to moral superiority.

BIRDWATCHER - Well, I hope you can get this one without much explanation, just a person who watches birds. Beginning or experienced, usually they own some binoculars, a field guide, know where to find a Roadside hawk, and keep a list of sightings. Today the connotation of birdwatcher is not hip and although it's an accurate and descriptive title, there are just too many to constitute an elite.

BIRDER - As you may have already guessed, the hip, elite and seriously involved in identifying and collecting listings. Example: If you are a "birder" you don't go birdwatching, you go "birding" to adventurous locations.

TWITCHER - This list wouldn't be complete without listing the "Twitcher". Bill Oddie, in his famous "Little Black Bird Book" defines it as, "Someone who is obsessed with `Ticks' (British for "mark it off your list"), races around the country chasing rare birds, uses all the correct terms and marks off the list as he goes."

     Now that you know the players, let's take a look at EQUIPMENT and CLOTHING. You will need: binoculars, an old hat, a field guide to bird identification, a rain poncho, insect repellent, a notebook and pen, a water bottle, a camera and film and sun screen.

    Think you're ready? Not quite...what are we looking at? You think that's a trick question, don't you? Birders are identifying birds! This seems to be the largest most important subject-what is it?

    Identifying a bird correctly isn't easy. It's best to start by putting it in an order, which brings us to "Taxonomy". Taxonomy is simply categorizing the bird in related groups. It's done with Latin names. The groups start with the largest group to the smallest individual. This is how it goes: Kingdom - whether it's a plant or an animal; Class - in this case, Avian (things that have feathers); Order - there are 34 orders that make up the big groups, for example, Herons, Hummingbirds, Owls, etc.; Family - medium-size groups within the big groups; Genus - a small group of closely related species; Species - the smallest division. It's best to think of species as a population; Subspecies - simply stated-a race!   

    Birders seem to only be concerned with the last three. You would record, for example, Caracara c. cachinnans (the Laughing falcon). Don't worry, it's all there in the field guide.

    Ah yes, the field guide, a book of color pictures, names all in order and you'd think that would make it easy. There is your bird sitting on the telephone wire patiently waiting while you look it up, correctly identify it and record it in your notebook. You have the binoculars focused in on it, but it just doesn't look like the illustration. Your problem could be another favorite topic of a true Birdwatcher, Molting and Plumage. When it doesn't look like the photo in the field guide, it can usually be blamed on the fact that birds change feathers for the occasion. Feathers are different patterns and colors at different stages of their lives for a variety of reasons. "Immature" is one of the most common reasons you may not find it easily identifiable. For example, the little Blue Heron is white for its first year until it goes into its breeding season. Molting is the process by which birds change their plumage. Old feathers simply don't fly a bird as well as new feathers, neither do they attract the opposite sex. So migration and breeding are the two major reasons to molt. Plumage is used to describe what one might call your wardrobe "summer plumage, winter plumage, breeding plumage," all different looks of the same species.

   Now before you go out into the world thinking you're keen on birds, let's arm ourselves with a vocabulary and take a look at some terms you'll need to use. Birders use words you won't find in spell check. "Ish" is used to describe something that's not quite what it is, for example, blue-ish, red-ish, dark-ish. This gives you a lot of latitude to cover a mistaken ID. Eyeshine is the color reaction to a bird's eyes when they have a light shined on them at night, for example, blue eyeshine or green eyeshine. Topknot, as you might guess, is the strange thing on the top of the bird's head. Understory is the place where you might find a jungle bird, in the "understory" of the trees. Rufus is a color, sort of red-ish rusty-brown and surprisingly most birds have something you could describe as rufus. Use it a lot.

    So, what have we learned? Even you can be a Birdwatcher. You're not an ornithologist; don't twitch, be prepared, keep a list of birds you identify, and don't ever take yourself too seriously.


Birds of Ambergris Caye

This page, and all contents, are Copyright © Elbert Greer