EXTENSION CORNER: Birding for Beginners

Antonius R. Chess Jr., Cornell Cooperative Extension of Yates County, Natural Resources Program Assistant
An adult male eastern bluebird.

With over 45 million people participating, bird watching is one of America's most popular hobbies. According to the Birdlife International data zone, the United States has 844 different species of birds. There are 248 species that have established breeding and populate New York State, per the New York State Ornithological Association (NYSOA). Each species has unique ecological functions and tendencies. By identifying a species correctly, we can better understand the surrounding environment. By continuously collecting information on birds in their habitats over time, scientists create historical data to have insight into overall environmental changes.

What is birding?

Webster's definition of a birder is: "A person who observes and identifies birds in their habitats." There are specific tools needed to observe and identify a bird properly. Binoculars and an up-to-date, well-credited identification guide. Binoculars are required because they enable recognizing unique details on a bird that may differentiate sex and species. The ID guide verifies visual findings and turns guesses into facts. It is essential to have an up-to-date ID guide since bird populations are constantly changing, and new species are being identified. According to Audubon, the most informative field guides include:

· The Sibley Guide to Birds

· Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America

· The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America

· National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

· The Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America

· The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

There are also many eGuides or apps available on mobile devices from some of these same publishers. However, it is best to have a paper field guide in your inventory if birding away from home. Circumstances such as lack of signal, a dying battery, or a broken device will impair one's ability to observe. Additionally, it is best to save your device for emergencies or pictures when in the field.

How to bird

There are different levels of involvement in birding: Bird Watching, Birding, and Ornithology. Bird Watching is typically more passive observation anytime, anywhere as long as there are birds. Birding is actively observing specific locations and times for particular birds. An ornithologist is a scientist studying birds, collecting data, and interpreting the correlation of population size to the state of the environment.

Identifying a bird by sight and/or sound are the beginning skills of any burgeoning birder! The ID guides will include pictures, but you will need to utilize an online database such as the AllAboutBirds.org through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to practice identifying sounds.

Another great way to practice identifying sounds is by going outside and listening! There are also downloadable checklists of the different New York state bird species on the NYSOA website.

Here are some tips for beginners from the National Park Service (NPS) “Birding for Beginners”:

· Identifying common bird species in an area;

· Finding a solid location to observe consistently;

· Knowing the consistencies with the time of day, the time of year, and the types of birds you will observe;

· Be quiet, be patient, and blend in with the environment;

· Take notes or pictures as often as possible.

Knowing the common bird species in your area allows you to appreciate seeing a rare one. Finding a good location is essential because visibility and potential food sources will help you see more birds. Before dawn and at dusk are the times birds are most active. Typically, the earlier in the day you start an observation, the better. The early bird gets the worm, and the early birder gets to see it! Blending in with the environment, being patient, and reducing your noise level will affect how the birds respond to your presence in nature.

Why go birding?

Birds are vital to understanding the environment surrounding them. Knowing their eating, breeding, and nesting habits, and migration patterns tells a story of the ecosystems they inhabit. When bird populations change over time, we can observe potential factors and investigate—using historical data collected by birdwatching hobbyists and ornithological studies.

We can identify potential hazards to an environment before it becomes too detrimental to an overall ecosystem or bird population. According to the BirdLife International data zone, America now has over 30 extinct species and 89 currently vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species. Most of these species are decreasing in population size due to fragmentation and habitat degradation causing other effects such as loss of food and shelter. Identifying where we see these birds is an important job.

Migratory bird patterns are based on climate temperature and precipitation patterns. Therefore, migratory birds are essential to understanding global climate change as it directly modifies an ecosystem's temperature and precipitation patterns.

Help identify sick birds

It is also important to be able to identify a sick bird. Identifiers include:

· Unfocused eyes;

· Missing/Fluffed Feathers;

· Dirty/Matted Feathers;

· Swollen/ Crusty Eyes.

There is a rising neurological disease spreading in the bird population. Symptoms include:

· Swelling/Crusty eyes

· Seizures

· Leg paralysis

· Increased vocalization

Not much is known yet about this disease except that it has been spreading across the east coast. Audubon NY posted on their Facebook page ways to help stop the spread:

· Cease feeding birds and providing water in birdbaths until this wildlife mortality event has concluded. This may be infectious.

· Clean feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution.

· Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it is necessary to handle a bird.

· Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.

· To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard them with household trash.

These are our best ways to prevent the spread and transmission to other birds. If a diseased or dead songbird with these symptoms is identified, please contact the regional DEC Wildlife offices or the Cornell Wildlife Health Center cwhl@cornell.edu

Birding is rewarding to us, the birds we observe, and the rest of the environment. Get a guide and some binoculars and make an impact in the community! Websites like www.ebird.org allow people to participate within their community by logging their identifications and contributing to collecting historical data.

For questions or additional information, contact CCE Yates Natural Resources Educator, Laura Bailey at lb698@cornell.edu or 315-536-5123.

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