The Art of Bird Identification

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Being an indoor cat, Rocco as developed a refined taste in books.

My new hero: Pete Dunne, author of many books about birds and birding, but The Art of Bird Identification is a jewel. A friend recommended this slim volume to me a few weeks ago and I've already renewed it twice from my local public library. Yes, I will buy a copy--probably several to give as gifts to the Accidental Naturalist-style birders who have resolved to become more intentional, but don't quite know how. Pete Dunne tells you how and makes you want to try.

  "Actually, bird identification bores me," is the shocker that opens Dunne's book. "If all you want to do is pin a name to a bird, buy and use a field guide," he continues. "But if you are serious about birding, if you want to learn a skill set you can apply to the identification of all birds, stationary and in flight, near and far, then read this book."

   All the birds? In just 135 pages? There has to be some kind of gimmick, right? In fact, there are no gimmicks, no flash cards, no apps. Just a common-sense approach that relies on seeing the big picture--the traits that unite North American birds in 75 bird families (hummingbirds, flycatchers, waterfowl, loons, alcids, and the like). Those traits include the general shape of the bird, how it moves, its habitat, its feeding style, and degree of sociability.

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An illustration fromThe Art of Bird Identification .

We often ignore these traits when we are out in the field with our dog-eared, high-lighted field guide and our bird checklist. And why do we ignore these traits? Because, Dunne suggests, many standard field guides focus on identification of birds from structure and plumage characteristics--characteristics closely and carefully observed by scientists using collected specimens (birds shot and preserved). No one, Dunne asserts, can see the sharp shin on a sharp-shinned hawk unless that bird is in hand. The "shotgun school" of bird identification puts at a disadvantage all the birds like me who fumble with binoculars, don't have a spotting scope, or go birding in places where the birds don't sit still long enough to have their shins or napes observed.  Dunne's book is designed to help you id a twitchy yellow blur in the bushes.

The Art of Bird Identification is not intended to be a replacement for a field guide. Dunne believes field guides are useful (and essential) but only if we understand how to use them. Which, apparently, most of us don't. I find myself flipping back and forth through my National Geographic field guide trying to match the bird I think I saw with one of the pictures in the book. According to this system, there are quite a number of birds of the desert and alpine tundra flitting around the salt marshes of Puget Sound. Had I bothered to study the salt-marsh habitat, read up on the families of birds that might be found there, I might have avoided these embarrassing mis-identifications. Waxwing not Phainopepla. Marsh Wren, not Canyon Wren.

   Perhaps the best advice in Dunne's book is to start with the common birds in your back yard--the ones whose names you learned, the ones you checklisted long ago--and learn "how they stand, move, forage, and fly. Become intimate with them. (There's a name for this activity. It's called 'bird watching.')"

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How could you not trust the advice of an author with back-cover photo like this one?

   Thus, I have learned that the birds on my backyard feeder are Pine Siskins. And now, thanks to Dunne's encouragement, I know something about their family, who they hang with, their habits, and their personality (elsewhere, Dunne calls them "The Bratty, Streaky, Little Pipsqueak at the Thistle Feeder"). And I know why they are at my feeder.