Start the Year with a New Focus While Birding

Start the Year with a New Focus While Birding

By Andy McCormick

As you have undoubtedly learned since becoming involved with Audubon, there are many ways to enjoy birds and to learn more about birds. As we begin a new year, I thought I would offer a few ideas that you can use to expand your knowledge and hopefully your enjoyment of watching birds. If you’re happy with where you are, keep enjoying the birds. If you want to learn more, try one of these ideas in 2019.  


Participating in a field trip is a great way to get experience identifying and enjoying birds with the help of other birders and an experienced field trip leader. Watching birds in the field is the best way to learn. Watching birds at your feeder is also very helpful. Eastside Audubon field trips welcome people of all birding skill levels on our field trips. There is always time for questions and even if the leader is focused on locating a bird for the group, other participants are willing to help new birders. Watch the newsletter and website for classes on birds.  


You may hear some birders say something like “I just count them as sparrows and that’s enough.” For some people that is good enough and they can enjoy watching these birds. Others may want to learn more and feel a little overwhelmed with the variety of species. For 2019, I recommend that you pick one or two groups of birds, say sparrows and finches, and focus on learning the common species of the Pacific Northwest well. Then you’ll have a good base of knowledge for that group and can build from there, and choose another group next year.   


In scientific organization, called taxonomy, birds are assigned to a family and then a genus and given a species name or epithet. The genus and species names are in Latin and usually printed in italics. The genus is capitalized and the species epithet is not. For example, the Song Sparrow’s scientific name is Melospiza melodia. Melospiza is from the Greek for a song bird and melodia is from the Latin for a pleasant song. It can be very helpful to know that two other sparrows are also in the genus Melospiza. These are Lincoln’s Sparrow (M. lincolnii), named for Thomas Lincoln who accompanied John James Audubon on a trip, and Swamp Sparrow (M. georgiana), named for the State of Georgia, where the specimen was first collected. You’ll notice that when the genus is repeated it is written by the first letter only.  

However, what is most important about the genus is to note that these three sparrows look and act in similar ways, and it is very helpful to put a sparrow into a genus to narrow down the range of possible choices when trying to identify one. One helpful exercise is to choose a family of birds such as sparrows and go through your field guide and underline the genus of each bird. Some people color code the underlinings to help the genus groups stand out. Read the descriptions and you’ll soon begin to see the similarities and make connections among the birds. 


It goes without saying that feathers are very important for birds. They provide a protective layer, insulate birds from the cold, rain, heat, and from brushing against branches. They also make birds attractive in mating displays. However, as feathers age, they wear out and this causes their appearance to change. The edges become worn, the colors will fade, and the shape can change.  

To remedy this problem, birds molt new feathers at least once a year and sometimes twice or three times. Some molts include just the head and body feathers. At least once a year birds molt the flight feathers of the wings and tail. Following a molt, the colors and details on the edges of feathers are very clear and the birds take on a bright appearance. Many birds molt into new basic plumage in late summer, so birds, especially juvenile birds, can look bright in fall. Some birds molt into alternate, or breeding, plumage during the late winter and will be beautiful during spring migration. Take some time this year to watch bird feathers carefully as the year passes and note how these feathers change.  

Many thanks to Kenn Kaufman for many of these ideas which are in his book the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding. Birding is a wonderful hobby. There is always more to learn. Have a great year of birding in 2019.

Song Sparrow by Mick Thompson

Song Sparrow by Mick Thompson