Learn to see and help wildlife at the same time. First, place a bird feeder 5 to 15 feet from a window where you can observe birds. Second, discover distinguishing characteristics for identifying different species and even sexes of birds. Use systematic practice with different pieces and parts of birds on different days.
Start with heads and stick with just that part. Common birds that frequent feeders are Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches, and American Goldfinches.
On the head, look for a crest. Jays, cardinals, and titmice will have a crest. Notice they can stand it up or lay it flat. Look for head patterns. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a black-cap with white cheek and throat. The chickadee also has a black cap and white cheek but its throat is black.
The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers have nearly identical head appearances. Both have black and white stripes running from the front of the head toward the back. The Hairy has a larger head and the entire body is larger but I frequently encounter people misidentifying them based on size. A helpful head feature to note is that the Hairy has a beak that is as long as the head or longer. The Downy’s is shorter than the length of the head. Male and female Hairy and Downy’s can be separated because the males have a red spot on the back of the head and females do not have red on the head.
On another day, look at bird wings. Are they a solid color? Chickadees have gray wings with white along the edge of each feather. Titmice have solid gray wings. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers have black wings that are heavily spotted with white. Goldfinches have two light wing bars running crosswise across the wings. House finches also have wing bars but they are more faint.
Third day check out tails. Are the tops and bottoms different? How about the edges? The gray tail on the chickadee has a white frame around the edge. Are tails of different lengths? The chickadee has a long narrow tail. The nuthatch as a shorter wide tail. Woodpecker tail feathers have obvious pointed projections at the end that are used in their nature niche to brace themselves on a tree when using their sharp bill for pecking trees. Hairy’s have white undertails. Downy’s have black dashes across the white underside.
Many unique features help separate bird species. It becomes easier when we notice pieces and parts. At the feeder, we get frequent, repeated, and even long looks at what is called bird topography. Purchase a field guide and study the bird topography page.
When you try to identify a species, the guide may suggest looking at the crown, cheek, lores, supraloral stripe, nape, or some other feature that may be foreign to you. By practicing on birds at the feeder and comparing features listed on the topography page with birds in view, it will be easier to recognize pieces and parts when you begin looking at birds in the bush.
We notice the over all general appearance of different birds and most recognize that large blue birds with a crest are Blue Jays, bright red birds with a crest are Northern Cardinals, and smaller gray birds with a crest and white belly are Tufted Titmice. Sometimes it is not easy to separate birds with similar appearances. That is evident when we look at the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.
Take time to enjoy the details. We barely began the discussion of appearance. Continue by comparing bill sizes and shapes or bird bellies. Discovering bird pieces and parts is fascinating.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.