THERE is no one correct “method” in bird study, any more than there is in learning to play the piano. Our object is to be able to recognize the birds when we see them, to become as familiar as possible with their habits, haunts, and seasons, to find out what and how many species are to be found in a region or locality, and perhaps take photographs of them. So long as we are able to accomplish these results, it makes little difference how we do it, there is no compulsory order or exact program. Nevertheless there are things which sooner or later must be done and must be learned in some way. Suggestions will facilitate progress, and, by avoiding waste of time and through securing greater efficiency from the first, the student will advance more rapidly and avoid becoming discouraged and abandoning the attempt to know the birds.
At the outset, in undertaking to study birds, it will be of great help to have some intelligent idea of the classes or types of birds with which we may become acquainted. Most people know a sparrow, a hawk, or a duck when they see it. There are various kinds or species of sparrows, hawks, and ducks, but the several species in each of these groups have ” a family likeness,” certain general characteristics in common. Now there are not so many” of these groups but that one can give a distinct idea of each without too great effort. Then, when a bird is clearly seen, one will have a pretty good idea as to where it belongs, and will only have to compare descriptions of a few species to find the right one.
There is a great difference in the state of mind of the person equipped with this knowledge who tries to identify birds and that of another who encounters the birds afield without it. I recall most vividly my first meeting, when a boy, with a certain common bird, and how utterly puzzled I was. One day in late autumn, as I passed through a grove in the suburbs of Boston, I came close upon a tiny bird with a small, rather sharp bill, black crown and throat, gray back, and white underparts. It was busily examining the ends of the branches, sometimes hanging head down, often uttering a series of animated notes.
I had not the remotest idea what the bird could be. Never had I seen anything like it. Perhaps it was a new species, that wonder which beginners sometimes hope to find in the most thoroughly explored regions ! At home I had a great time searching the bird-books from cover to cover. At last, slowly and painfully, I became convinced that it was only a common chickadee ! Had I spent a little time before in a ” bird’s-eye view ” I should have known it could not have been anything else than a titmouse or nut-hatch, unless possibly a warbler. Here is another case when, after taking the bird’s-eye view, an identification was comparatively easy. Along a roadside, in some choke-cherry shrubbery I saw a bird about the size of a bluebird, with a rather sharp bill and of a general olive and yellowish hue with a black patch on the throat. I knew at once it must be some sort of an oriole. It was not the Baltimore, and the orchard oriole was the only other kind known to occur in New England. But I had never seen a female or-chard oriole with a black throat. So, what could it be but some rare tropical species which had strayed up there ! An excited looking up of the orchard oriole showed that this was the plumage of the young male in the second year. But for my having in mind the general characteristics of the oriole group, it would have been quite a problem to trace this out.
The best course for beginning to become familiar with these groups is to find out in the bird-books what are the principal groups represented in the region where one lives. Then, if possible, go to a museum and examine a few of the species in each group. In this way one will get a very vivid idea of family resemblances, and it will be a mighty help afield. If there is no museum near, make the same study from pictures of birds. In case there are none at home, the public library may help out.
In order to be properly equipped for good work it is necessary to secure certain pieces of apparatus,, notably a field glass and a handbook of birds. As to the first, I would state emphatically that it is not at all necessary to purchase anything expensive or cumbersome. An ordinary opera glass will do very well. Combine the qualities of a reasonably high power and a light weight. It does not necessarily follow that a glass is so very “strong ” because it is heavy. What one wants in a glass is mainly to be able to see birds clearly enough to identify them, and a good ordinary glass of fair size, the best one can get for a moderate expenditure, will suffice for all-round work. Such a glass is as good as any other for work in a swamp, shrubbery, or foliage, where the birds, to be seen at all, are encountered at close range.
Under conditions of this sort a very high-power glass is not only unnecessary, but distinctly not so good, as it is very hard to get the bird in the field of vision and in focus. With the ordinary opera glass one can pick up a bird in the thicket almost instantly, whereas with the other it becomes a vexatious hunt, and by the time one has got the. range, the bird may very likely have departed.
For work at long range in the open, an 8-power binocular is a wonderful aid. With one of these I remember watching a flock of those exceedingly wary birds, great black-backed gulls. They were at the water’s edge on a very wide beach at low tide, and I was peering over the sand-dunes, probably three hundred yards away. They did not see me, and were quietly resting and preening their feathers. The glass brought them so ” near ” to me that I could see when one opened its bill, and clearly distinguished every motion.
In an open place one can watch a warbler in the top of a tall tree, and see every detail of form and color from such a distance that without a glass the bird would be practically invisible. There is a hawk watching for prey, outlined against the sky on the bare limb of a tree far across the fields. It would not allow us to approach within a hundred and fifty yards, but with the glass we can tell what it is almost as well as though we could walk right up to it. One is fortunate to have a glass of this sort, especially as the glass is light and compact. But if not, there is no need to be discouraged, for some of the very best ornithologists get along with an ordinary glass, and for work in thick places one will do better with the latter than with the former.
As to the handbook of ornithology, one that is small and concise, having condensed descriptions which make clear the distinguishing characteristics of the species, is the best one for the beginner. These also will have a brief sketch of each bird’s habits, with condensed information about its nesting, notes, and other items. Frank M. Chapman’s ” Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America” is the best general one for that territory, and Mrs. Florence Merriam Bailey’s ” Handbook of Western Birds” for the West. Ralph Hoffman’s Handbook is excellent for the New England and Middle States. These books contain convenient ” keys ” for the identification of birds. Sufficient explanation is given with each key, as to its use.
The matter of making records of observations afield is a very important element to add zest and definiteness to the study of birds. This is imperative even if the study is solely for recreation. Merely to see and identify birds is very pleasant for a time, but it is so indefinite that one is liable to weary of it, or merely to dabble in it occasionally in a languid sort of way. But if things are put down in black and white one has something to show, something permanent to remember. Besides, the future use of the record is part of the game, as we shall see presently.
One should carry afield on every jaunt a small, ordinary pocket note-book and pencil. Write first the date, weather, and the general locality. Then, as the first individual of each species is seen, however common, put down the name at once, if it is recognized. It is part of the sport to find as many birds as possible in a day and to compare the list with that of others who may have gone afield on the same day, or the same week. Not only is the total number a matter of interest, but also the varieties seen.
A friendly rival might, for example, see exactly the same number of species that we did, and yet one greatly surpass the other in the real value and interest of the list by the discovery of rare or uncommon kinds. It is usually more of an achievement, say, to find an owl than a robin. On a day in May, during a great ” wave ” of migrating warblers, one very rare species positively identified may be a greater ” strike ” than the recording of twenty other more common ones. It will be of great interest subsequently to look over these daily records and see how the abundance of birds in general varies, how the personnel of the species changes from time to time, and when this or that one is first or last seen. As each year passes, it is of absorbing interest to compare the recent notes with those of the corresponding time the year previous, or of a succession of years.
The mere recording of each species seen is not enough. As birds of the same species recur, one may add marks opposite the name, up to the point where it is evident that this or that is abundant. Record should be made, in just a few ” catch-words,” of all items of interest connected with birds’ habits. It may prove that some little point, supposed to be of no value, is really of great interest, and worthy of wide ,publicity. If the nest of a bird is found, brief record should be made of situation, number, and condition of eggs or young, the material of the nest, the actions of parents, and any other points of interest. Casual notes should be made of the progress of the season, which will prove interesting and valuable for comparison year by year, the first and last snow and frost, the first hepatica or blood-root, great storms, and any unusual conditions.
There are some quite elaborately prepared field-books, with spaces ruled off for all sorts of things, which one may secure, if desired, but unless one is going very extensively into migration records and the like, the common manila-covered ” order-book” answers every purpose. A very neat way is to have a small black cloth-bound cover to hold perforated pages. These can be taken out, put on file, and later on tied or bound together, others being inserted as required.
Besides the field notes, it is an excellent thing to keep a journal of observations and experiences, written up at home, as an amplification of the hasty jottings of the field-notes. This is not essential, in a way. Adults who lead busy lives and can only snatch brief or infrequent intervals for jaunts in the glorious open, and who do not intend to go into the subject very earnestly, of course may feel themselves excused from this. At the same time, it is a delightful thing to be able to read over one’s past experiences in years to come. But for the young I earnestly recommend the keeping of a journal. Besides being a great source of pleasure afterwards, it furnishes a constant and fruitful field for facility in the expression of ideas, which may lead on to more important things. This book, for instance, is a direct outcome of that habit.
A most satisfying and useful method of bird study is along the line of special research. For this one may select a species as such, or a phase of its life, as its nesting habits. Or else some general topic may be chosen, how birds start on migration, where they spend the night, bird psychology, etc. In such ways earnest workers may contribute to science and gain recognition therein.
A few suggestions as to clothing may not be amiss, though in bird-study there are no fashions or conventions along this line to be respected. The most useful of all articles I find to be a pair of long rubber boots. Those that merely reach to the knees will neither keep one dry in a marsh, nor in long grass or snow. Clothing had better be of subdued hues, to lend inconspicuously with the outdoor surroundings browns or grays are best. Even in severe winter ‘leather it is well not to be impeded with a long or heavy overcoat. It must be pretty cold to chill one excercising in a sweater.
A suit and cap of corduroy are well-nigh proof against cold, but they are too hot for use in the warmer seasons. Then one might use something of light canvas, though it is exactly as well to wear out one’s old clothes. A light rain-proof coat is also needful. On long drives or extended trips I always plan to carry one. There are times when most of us “bird-cranks” wish to be out in the rain, and equipped with waterproof coat, hat and boots, it is real fun to defy the elements. Thus fitted out I have had glorious times tramping the sea-beaches in the northeast hurricanes or made splendid finds of nests in wet grass or rushes when the birds were sitting dose.