Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bird Identification Tips from the Very Bad Birder

(Copyright 2012, Dee Fairbanks Simpson, originally published in SCAS Limpkin)

In an effort to help other Very Bad Birders (VBBs - let's form a club!) I thought I would offer some handy tips for identifying a few of the very few species that I am currently capable of identifying. First, a general tip: despite what the experts claim, it is not the shape, beak, feathers or legs that make birds identifiable; it is the birder's ability to anthropomorphize the bird. Once you can find a human trait to which you can relate a bird, you will remember the bird. So, without further ado, here are some tips for remembering certain species.

Royal terns are easily identified by their male pattern baldness. If you are at the beach and see a tern that appears to be middle aged and in need of a good toupee (white crown with a black fringe of feathers closely resembling my dad's hairline, you've most likely got yourself a royal tern.

White Ibis always appear somewhat refined, with their large bodies, white feathers and delicately curved orange beak. To me, they look like they would answer to the name "Harriet"; I can easily picture a white ibis taking high tea with it's pinkie raised (well, Ibises don't have pinkies, so you have to use your imagination on this one. ) If calling Ibises Harriet doesn't work for you, another tip off that you are looking at an Ibis species is that because of it's curved beak, it is one of the few birds that would have to land on top of your head in order to peck your eyes, thus making them a pretty safe species to study. Once you have it narrowed down to Ibis, if it's white, it's a white ibis, if it's brown spotted it's an immature white ibis, and if it has a dark multi-colored coat, it's a either a glossy ibis or a white ibis wearing a sweater that his Aunt Harriet got him for Christmas.

Anhingas and Cormorants are two species that can commonly be seen doing their laundry. Very often, you will see them sitting on a rock, hanging their wings out to dry. The main difference between the two species is that the cormorant has a rounder head and it's beak is also rounded at the tip, giving him a more friendly appearance. Anhingas, with their very pointy beak and thin face look more stern, and slightly angry. Unlike the aforementioned Ibis, an Anhinga could easily peck your eyes and would not need to be on top of your head to do so.

Painted buntings are a unique, very brightly colored bird. Now, I am a notoriously bad dresser; were it not for my older sister preventing me from doing so, I would wear garish mismatched clothing every day. If you see a small, perching bird, and think to yourself, "Man, that looks like something Dee would wear if Shirley didn't stop her," you are probably looking at a painted bunting.

Ospreys and eagles appear similar; they are both large birds of prey. The main way to differentiate between them is that Ospreys are somewhat jauntier dressers, with their white vest, as opposed to eagles, who wear a somewhat more business-like mostly brown suit. Unlike Royal terns, bald eagles do not suffer male-pattern baldness, they have more of a Yul Brenner type of baldness. Ospreys can appear quite similar to second-year eagles. A trick to tell them apart is their eyes; Ospreys have a slightly cross-eyed look; again, the eagle looks more serious and business like. Another tip for telling the two apart is to always carry money with you when you bird; if the bird looks like the bird on the US seal, it's a eagle. Unless you are carrying Canadian currency, which can be used for identifying beavers and moose, but alas will do you no good when faced with an osprey or eagle.

Tune in next month for additional tips including, "Birding by Cartoon" and "Trying to Identify Birds that Experienced Birders Make up Just to Make you Feel Inadequate."

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