What makes for a good bird?

As I write this, I am preparing for a trip up north. As we drive north we will follow the ecotone between the prairies and the deciduous woodlands, then track the ecotone between the prairies and the coniferous woodlands. Then we will make a turn and drive into the coniferous zone, cross the Mississippi, and then with a couple of small but palpable jumps in elevation and another hour and a half drive north, enter the lake region. Here, the primary vegetation cover certain times of the year is the nearly invisible diatom and algae layer on the top of the clear lakes, the bog plants, and the marsh grasses, even though the white pine gets most of the credit for making the place look pretty. I surmise that the dominant fauna is flies, broadly speaking (mosquitoes are a form of fly) but the deer, wolves, bear and beaver are far more often fetishized in the locally hawked wooden and plastic icons.

But really, we come here for the birds.

But only the good birds.

In thinking of what makes a good bird let us dispense immediately with the obvious bad birds. These are the invasive species. There is no ambiguity about that. Fortunately, in our north country, there are very few. A second category of bad bird, and this is much more ambiguous, is the artificially increased species. Canada geese can be so classified, if one looks around the Twin Cities especially at golf courses. But up north this is, again, not usually the case (as long as you stay out of downtown Walker, Minnesota where you can find pelicans and Canada geese communing on what looks to my New England eyes like a Commons but may be some kind of grassy flood basin in the middle of town). Seagulls can be so classified, but again, their occasional points of concentration … on some of the bigger lakes … seem reasonable even if it is hard to understand where these birds are breeding. Maybe they don’t breed here at all … maybe these are just young-uns on a kind of extended “gulls gone crazy” spring break. Crows and blue jays can be so classified if they’ve taken over feeders. But in our North Country, one crow is pretty, three crows are entertaining, five crows are a hassle, and ten crows are a smorgasbord for the bald eagles and large owls.

So mostly up north we have not-bad birds, which leaves a lot of potential for a good bird.

So any bird you see might be good, but how do you find a bird that is extra good?

Well, there are three factors in this equation, in my opinion.

1) A bird that is either rare to see because of its low numbers or its reclusive behavior, or that is out of its range, is extra good. Two years ago we saw a golden eagle. That counts. The occasional rare warbler that breeds in the arctic and winters in the Yucatan and is only seen while migrating through would count. On our bay, an osprey counts because at our end of the lake we normally don’t see them.

2) A bird that is doing something interesting counts. We get a fair number of hooded mergansers. They’re good ducks. But two weeks ago the hooded mergansers were doing the whole breeding thing. Behavior makes a regular bird, which is a perfectly good bird, a special bird. This is why in cartoons, when the bird is about to be killed by the hunter or the cat, it sometimes puts on a derby hat and grabs a cane and does a little soft-shoe dance. “Maybe I won’t get killed if I’m interesting enough” it is thinking.

3) A bird that I know something about counts. The more you know about a bird’s life history, habits, conservation status, and so on, the more above average that bird will be. This is because when you see the bird your brain goes “Oh, I know this and that and that and this about this bird. Oh, that feels good. Show me more.”

I think this third factor in bird quality is often overlooked by the casual bird watchers. A clue that a casual bird watcher does not really get factor three is when they refer to “birds” in the general sense but are making a comment about a specific thing.

“Birds fly south for the winter.”

“Birds like corn.”

“Birds like to sit on my clothes line.”

These are all statements that may apply to some birds, but not to many (in some cases most) others. Moreover, these are statements that oversimplify the behavior itself, and not just the bird. The three dimensional ecology and positional behavior of birds is diverse, demonstrates many principles of evolution, relates to enormously important ‘engineering’ issues (of foot, of flight, of forage) and is as important to birds as nearly any other factor on a day to day basis. The dietary ecology of birds is equally diverse and drives a large part of day to day bird behavior, longer term bird strategy, and shapes bird evolution in profound ways. Transhumant and migratory patterns are incredibly diverse across birds. Compare the black capped chickadee to the turkey vulture. Consider the seasonal behaviors of various thrushes. And what ever you do, don’t forget the buffalo. Weaver.

A lot of people think that they should get a good field guide to the birds. True. But then they think they should get a second field guide so they have more ways of looking up birds and thus have a better chance of identifying them. Wrong. Well, yes, two or three field guides is good. I probably have a dozen just for my region. But a field guide should not be your second book.

Your second book should be a book about behavior.

There are three ways to go with this. 1) A very general book that covers lots of birds; 2) A book that focuses on a small number of birds but goes into more detail; or 3) A monograph that either addresses a narrowly defined clade, or a particular species. All have their disadvantages and advantages. The comprehensive guide is probably best because you can look up whatever birds you happen to run into, like a field guide but with more detail. On the other hand, the monograph allows you to learn so much detail, and to understand what birds in general are all about, through the lens of an in-depth study. The in between category may satisfy both to some degree.

I have some specific recommendations:

Obviously, a book on emus is not going to help me better appreciate the birds up north. Unless we stop at the petting zoo up near Hackensack. But that is not really the point of the monographs: Here, your objective is to enjoy deep learning of well documented cases.

Well, I’ve gotta get packing. I have an early morning meeting and a long drive ….

…. Happy birding!

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Thibeault
    May 7, 2009

    If a bird anywhere near me were to start singing, say, for instance, “hello my baby, hello my darling, hello my ragtime gal”, it’s my new priority target. End of story.

    That said, happy bird-hunting!

  2. #2 Jason Thibeault
    May 7, 2009

    Um. By target, while I’m sure you mean a target of further scrutiny, I of course mean “doing whatever’s necessary to stop the freak of nature from irritating the crap out of me.” I’m heartless.

  3. #3 John
    May 7, 2009

    The Birder’s Handbook is excellent. I also think it’s worth picking up a state breeding bird atlas (if one exists). Those can be pretty informative about breeding behaviors and local ranges.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    May 7, 2009

    John: Good idea. That also may provide info on accidentals.

  5. #5 davem
    May 8, 2009

    As a hang glider and paraglider pilot, I have a different perspective.

    Good birds are the ones that mark thermals, and don’t fly off when you join them. So most songbirds = bad. Woodpeckers are pure evil – they sit in trees and wake you up at 5:30 in the morning. :0)

    Gulls are moderately good; they are easy to spot, and they always circle in lift, but they always fly off when you join them. Also moderately good are swifts and swallows; they mark lift low down, at take off, since they feed on insects caught in the updraughts, but they don’t circle in it, so they don’t mark the core.

    Good birds = Buzzards and Eagles; they mark cores, and let you join them. The best of all are vultures. They may look ugly as sin, but they let you approach within a couple of metres. They are truly wonderful flying machines. You haven’t lived until you’ve circled to cloudbase with a vulture.

  6. #6 Sheri Williamson
    May 8, 2009

    Excellent summary of what constitutes a “good bird” and recommendations for going beyond general field guides (for North American birders I would add the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior plus the Life Histories series by A.C. Bent for its historical value).

    Under the category “More Focused, Fewer Species,” I would also include some of the field guides and identification guides focused on groups of related species—raptors, waterfowl, warblers, sparrows, etc. Those that go beyond identification and distribution into behavior, natural history, ecology, conservation, etc. bridge the gap between user-friendly but shallow general field guides and intimidating and impractical monographs, helping non-scientists take the next step toward a deeper understanding and appreciation of their avian neighbors.

    (Full disclosure: I wrote A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America in the Peterson Field Guide Series.)

  7. #7 Pedro Cardia
    May 9, 2009

    I would add another suggestion for those whishing to learn more about a particular group of birds: try to find a library that has one of the 13 volumes (so far) of the “Handbook of the Birds of the World”. Extremely good text, wonderfull plates and amazing photos. I’m sure you won’t be disapointed and will learn a lot. I did!

    Pedro

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    May 9, 2009

    Sheri: Good idea. And your guide is excellent for people who live in areas where there are multiple hummingbirds.

    I was just wondering when to put up the hummingbird feeder…