Finding Your Wings

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As a long-time professor of biology, Burton Guttman has learned two major concepts from his students about learning: first, people learn best by actively participating in the learning process and second; people often try to learn at the wrong time. To address these two challenges, Guttman used his teaching experiences to design a workbook that teaches beginners how to watch birds in the field -- the first such book that I've ever seen published on this topic (I've since learned that there are two other such books that have ever been published). In this new book, Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers (NYC: Houghton Mifflin; 2008), Guttman provides beginning birders with a course of study that is filled with worksheets and games that help them learn how to see and observe wild birds as well as to learn how to use the field guides, binoculars and other materials and equipment available for this purpose.

Guttman tells you how to get started with learning how to see birds, starting with those features that you, as a birder, should be noting in order; the size and shape of a bird's bill, the bird's overall shape and posture, and the length, shape and markings on its tail, which provide the observer with the bird's "jizz"; a subtle characteristic impression of each bird's identity based on the unique combination of its various behaviors and its physical shape. The author also includes a few lessons on how to draw a "typical bird" from the 21 major taxonomic orders of North American birds so you can practice before you go out into the field to identify birds for yourself.

After you've learned the basic features for each taxonomic order of North American birds, the author then suggests that you learn to identify the common birds first and follows that up with a photo-quiz featuring these species. Obviously, some of these easy birds are not present in all habitats occupied by humans, such as roadrunners and grackles, but they are distinctive enough that it doesn't hurt to learn how to identify them anyway because the process of learning how to identify them remains the same regardless of species.

Detailed treatments of birds are presented starting with chapter five. In this chapter, the beginning birder learns the basic topology of songbirds' bodies and learns how to describe the plumage markings of birds using the correct terminology. In the next chapter, the author describes eight passerine families that the beginning birder will encounter in most habitats. These eight families are the tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae), kinglets (Regulidae), thrushes (Turdidae), sparrows (Emberizidae), wrens (Troglodytidae), wood warblers (Parulidae), vireos (Vireonidae), and blackbirds and their relatives (Icteridae). Then the author describes birds in flight; their basic movements and style of flight; does the bird beat its wings rapidly or slowly? does the bird have deep or shallow wingbeats? straight or undulating flight? are the bird's wings narrow and pointed or short and rounded? does the bird sing while in flight and if so, when during its flight cycle?

Since most birders identify the vast majority of their birds based on vocalizations alone, the author then briefly introduces the idea of how to learn bird songs. In short, this is not in the scope of the book but the author and I agree by recommending the excellent Birding By Ear series to accomplish this task [Western, Eastern and Central and More Eastern and Central].

Even though birds are everywhere to be seen, you will be assisted in your search for specific species by learning a little bit about where and when those particular species of birds are most likely to be found. To do this, the author lists a wide variety of books and websites that will help beginning birders to learn more about birds, their habitats and their habits -- including, to my great surprise, my own weekly effort, Birds in the News.

Several other important chapters are included in this book. One chapter is devoted specifically to proper birding techniques and etiquette -- something that I think is sorely lacking in many basic birding and bird photography classes, which has given rise to a slew of people who make birding into a frustrating experience for their more established peers. The other chapter describes how to properly use your binoculars. Through my own experiences with leading birding field trips, I have found that many people do not know how to properly use their binoculars, so I start out with a short tutorial on this topic and have always been thanked for taking the time to make sure that my group could get the most out of their equipment.

The last half of the book focuses on "problematic groups"; female birds, diurnal raptors (hawks), shorebirds, gulls, and sparrows -- all of which I have described as those birds that teach us all a little humility when we get somewhat uppity because of our growing knowledge base. Guttman then ends with some fun and games -- one of which involves a series of cards with a description of the bird on one side and the common name on the other side. I recommend that you photocopy those cards and then cut them up instead of hacking up your bird book (but that's just me). These cards serve as a wonderful way to design further lessons on your own that will help you learn to identify birds, as is the case for nearly every worksheet or game presented in this book.

This is a 206-page spiral-bound book that is printed on glossy high-quality paper. It includes many diagrams and full-color images of birds that are helpful for discerning minute details of birds that a new birder may not have ever noticed before. It has two appendices; one is a list of correct answers to questions posed throughout the book, and the other is a 7-page guide for purchasing a good pair of binoculars. The book also has a 4.5-page bibliography and a 12-page user-friendly index in the back. The book was designed to be a supplement to the Peterson Field Guides, so the exercises in this book sometimes include a page number from the Peterson Field Guide that you should refer to, so plan on purchasing either the Peterson's eastern or western field guide when you purchase this workbook, if you don't already own one or both of them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to see birds, indeed, to anyone who wishes to learn how to carefully observe any living thing. But kids, and beginning and intermediate birders will benefit most from this step-by-step program, along with those people who are traveling to another country to look at birds, but forgot the process they used to learn how to see and identify their own native species (don't laugh; this is more common than you think!). I also think this book provides a wonderful starting point for those instructors out there who wish to design and teach classes for beginning birders/naturalists who are setting out on improving upon and exploring their new hobby.

Burton Guttman is a professor of biology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and a longtime teacher of birding workshops. His concern about society's increasing alienation from the natural world -- at a time when the earth needs our protection more than ever -- motivated him to write a book that helps people get to know and love nature, so they will want to protect it.


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Interesting-sounding book ...thanks for the info! I'm not a "serious birder" by any means, but it sounds worthwhile.

As a "Peterson Field Guide" user from way back, I will only look for warblers in the spring or the fall. That way, I can state confidently that, "Aha! There's a Confusing Spring (or Fall) Warbler!!"

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink

Forgot to mention ...

...the size and shape of a bird's bills,

I'm really going to have to buy this book. I've only ever seen birds with one bill each. :-)

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink

heh, it's not as easy to type with one hand as you might think it is! anyway, i think i've caught and corrected all my typos now (hopefully).

Obviously we cannot diagnose long distance via email. But per prior messages I continue to strongly suggest 2nd opinion and at a different hospital (so truly independent opinion). If your insurance situation is such you are limited to the public hosptials then perhaps at Bellevue Hospital; it share some of the same doctors with its affiliated University Medical Center (in this case NYU); it's quite good.

Here are some reliable mainstream info on proximal humerus fxs:


Surgical Neck fxs…

Anatomic Neck fxs:

A very well written review. The wide variety of birds around my home in Hawaii has gotten under my skin and I've been learning more and more about birds. This sounds like a nice book to use to teach my kids more.