Ask Kenn Kaufman: What’s the Best Way to Become a Better Birder?

In this month's column, Kenn shares his "four Ls" philosophy for birding. Plus, do birds that live in flocks have a higher chance of survival?

Who's Kenn? Simply put, Kenn is a national treasure. A renowned birder, author, and conservationist, Kenn Kaufman has spent his life dedicated to observing birds, reading about birds, writing about birds, and sharing the world of birds with others. With all that birdy knowledge in his brain, he also acts as the field editor for Audubon magazine. So, whenever we have a bird question stumping us around the office, we just ask Kenn. And now you can, too! If you have a bird or birding question you'd like Kenn to answer, leave them in the comments on Facebook or send us an email. Maybe next month you'll get the kind of thorough, thoughtful, and even humorous response from Kenn we've grown so fond of over the years. —The Editors 


Question: What's the best way to become a better birder? 

Kenn Kaufman: Any time I address a question about how to get “better” at birding, I start by repeating something I once wrote. “Birdwatching is something that we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you are already a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you are a great birder.”

In other words, no one should feel any pressure to “advance” toward expert status—it’s fine to just appreciate birds at any level. But people often find that birding is more enjoyable when they can recognize more of the birds that they see and hear. Developing your identification skills brings a sense of accomplishment, and identifying more species when we’re out gives us a greater understanding of what’s going on in the bird world. So it’s worthwhile to work on these abilities.

Identifying more birds is not just a matter of memorizing more details and then analyzing field marks on every individual we see. For an experienced birder, recognizing a familiar species is like recognizing a friend: We know them instantly, at a glance, by general impression or the way they move, and then we take a second look to be sure before we call out their name.

There are a number of strategies for developing this kind of familiarity with birds, but my top recommendation could be summarized as the four Ls: Look and Listen a Little Longer.

When I’m leading an ID workshop in the field, I’ll use any trick to get participants to spend more time on each bird. If we’re looking at a Savannah Sparrow perched in the open, for example, I won’t name the bird at first; instead, I’ll ask questions. “Does it have a central crown stripe?” “How would you describe the tail shape?” “The wings aren’t plain, but would you say it has wing bars?” Everyone focuses while we discuss these points. But as soon as I say “It’s a Savannah Sparrow,” most people will lower their binoculars and stop looking.

In my opinion, that’s exactly the time you should look most intently. When you know the identity of a bird—from diagnostic markings, or from having it named by an expert—that’s the moment to take an extra minute to study it some more. What additional details can you notice? How does its shape seem to change as it shifts position? How does it move? If you wait, will it make some distinctive callnote? Just spend another minute looking and listening, getting to know this bird a little better. If it’s hard to focus that long, try describing something about it in words, or pull out a pocket notebook and try some simple sketches. The act of describing or sketching will force your mind to take in things you’d miss otherwise.

People sometimes tell me they don’t want to spend time on a common bird because they might miss some rare species as a result. But experts have a better chance of finding rarities precisely because they know the common birds so well. Think about it: Most of the birds we see and hear are the common ones, aren’t they? So you can increase your skill at identifying most birds by increasing your familiarity with common species.

Maybe you can easily identify an American Robin or a House Finch when it’s right in front of you in good light. But what if it’s off at a distance, in silhouette, or flying overhead? Can you recognize it by its shape and actions? Maybe you know the nasal awwnk-ah-rrreeee song of the male Red-winged Blackbird, but what about the wide variety of other sounds made by this species? Maybe a split-second glance is enough for identifying an adult male American Goldfinch in its bright yellow summer garb, but what about the subtler females, or the muted tones of winter plumage?

This might seem like absurdly simple advice, but I think the fastest way to improve your bird ID skills is to spend an extra minute consciously focusing on individual birds after you know what they are. That extra minute will pay off, and soon you’ll be naming more and more birds, at any distance or under any conditions, with greater confidence. Just look and listen a little longer. Since birds are fun to watch and sound beautiful anyway, this should be the most enjoyable assignment ever.

Q: Do birds living in flocks have a higher chance of survival?

KK: Join a flock, or go it alone? Birds make that decision all the time. But in general they are not deciding in a conscious way; instead, individuals are mostly following their instincts. And for every species, that particular instinct—whether to be social or solitary—has evolved over many thousands of generations. For each kind of bird, its social behavior reflects what has worked for the survival of the species in the past.

There are many advantages to joining a flock, but the one that seems to apply most widely is the simple need for protection from predators. If you’re a bird, it’s not easy to watch the sky for an approaching hawk or scan the shrubbery for a lurking weasel at the same time that you’re staring at seeds or searching under leaves for insects. You can’t look in every direction at once. But members of a flock can be glancing all around, and the more pairs of eyes looking, the more likely they are to spot an incoming predator and sound the alarm.

During migration and winter, many kinds of birds form flocks. But it’s not a uniform behavior even within related groups of species. Among the sandpipers, many species can be seen in dense concentrations—flocks of Western Sandpipers, for example, often number in the hundreds—but Solitary Sandpipers, living up to their name, usually are seen singly. White-crowned Sparrows spend the winter in flocks, but Baird’s Sparrows scatter across the grasslands as isolated individuals. Yellow-rumped Warblers wander in flocks all winter, but Hooded Warblers and Kentucky Warblers, on their wintering grounds in tropical forests, maintain individual territories and drive away all others of their kind.

Gatherings don’t always involve birds of a feather flocking together. Many species also join up in mixed flocks. North American woodlands in winter are enlivened by roving mixed flocks, in which a band of chickadees is joined by a handful of other birds including titmice, nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, and others. In these situations, the chickadees, flitting actively about the twigs, are well positioned to glance around in all directions. Something like a creeper or woodpecker, with its face pressed to the bark, would be less likely to notice the approach of danger. So these birds benefit by staying close to the chickadees. And since each species in the flock is foraging in a slightly different way, they don’t wind up competing directly for food. The advantages of flocking outweigh any disadvantages for those involved.

So what advantage leads some birds to stay solo? Avoiding competition for food is probably a big part of it. Belted Kingfishers, for example, never gather in flocks. During the winter, each individual defends its own feeding territory along a stream or shoreline. These territories seem to be just large enough to reliably support a single kingfisher. One Ohio study found that where small fishes were more abundant or feeding conditions were better, the territories were smaller, indicating that the kingfisher didn’t bother to defend a larger area than necessary.

When we’re thinking about this topic, it’s important to separate out the breeding season from other times of year, because the degree of sociality changes then. Red-winged Blackbirds, for example, may travel in large flocks for eight months of the year, but at the onset of the breeding season each male establishes his own territory and drives away other males. The same pattern holds for many other species, from Dunlins to Horned Larks: flocks for most of the year, breaking up into isolated pairs for nesting season. Of course, some birds continue to be sociable even when breeding and nesting in colonies. There are even some species that are solitary for much of the year but come together to form dense colonies in the breeding season. Why? Well, that’s a topic for another column.

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