Did you ever wonder why field guides and checklists always list the families of birds and individual species in a standard order? Birds are listed according to where they are considered to be on the evolution scale (known as phylogenetic order). Thus, the most primitive birds (swans, geese and ducks) are listed first, then the next most primitive (grouse, quail, partridges) and so on.
Finches are considered to be the most recently evolved, so they are listed last. Knowing this grouping, can make it a lot faster to look something up in the field guide without resorting to the index. As well, appearances can sometimes belie kinship, and this grouping reveals a more accurate picture of the relationship between species and bird families. To the untrained eye, a Northern Fulmar may look like a seagull, but from an evolution standpoint, it is closer to loons and grebes than it is to gulls.
Typically, a field guide is not 100% accurate all the time. This is because scientific classification of species (known as “taxonomy”) is an evolutionary process. As new data is collected and evaluated, new conclusions are reached, and the record is adjusted accordingly. Thus bird classification is in a constant state of refinement so that current listings reflect the most up to date, cutting-edge scientific data. It usually takes a while before these changes are reflected in the field guides.
For years, loons were considered to be the most primitive of birds and, consequently, always showed up first in the field guides and checklists. One of the bigger recent changes, that has yet to show up in field guides on the local bookshelves, is the moving of two families of birds (waterfowl and grouse) ahead of the loons in the taxonomic order. Other changes include moving the Snowy Owl from its very own, single specie genus Nyctea (meaning ‘nocturnal’ which was a bit of a misnomer anyway as the Snowy Owl is often active during the day) to the genus Bubo, and changing the common name of the Rock Dove to the more nominally accurate Rock Pigeon.
People often ask me how these changes come about or who decides these matters. Well, ever since it published its first “Checklist of North American Birds” in 1886, the recognized authority on North American avian taxonomy has been the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) based at the U.S. National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This organization though, doesn’t work in a vacuum. It takes input from the scientific community at large, and changes are only adopted after a consensus among several leading ornithological institutions. There is much discussion, but until the AOU recognizes the change, it is not considered official. Even ‘official’ taxonomic changes, though, often continue to be hotly debated in the ornithological community. Other leading bird study institutions are The American Birding Association (ABA) and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. So, you see, changes such as lumping the Baltimore Oriole and Bullock’s Oriole into one new species, the Northern Oriole, and then changing it back again a few years later, really do have a scientific basis, and it has absolutely nothing to do with pressure from the baseball team.
The modern system of classification, where every species is assigned a two-part Latin or Latinized Greek name (known as “binomial nomenclature”), was developed by the eighteenth century Swedish botanist, Carl von Linne (known by the Latin rendition of his name, Linnaeus). The first part of the Latin name is the “genus”, which always begins with a capital letter, and the second part the “species”, which always starts with a lower case letter. Each particular species has only one two-part Latin name recognized the world over. This eliminates any possible confusion among the scientific community that may be caused by different common or colloquial names used in different parts of the world.
Here’s an example. Recently, in preparation for a trip to South Africa, some friends of mine bought a field guide to South African birds. As I was leafing through this guide, I saw an illustration of a “European Sand Martin”. The bird looked very familiar. A quick check of the scientific name, “Riparia riparia”, revealed that it was indeed the same species that we know in North America as the “Bank Swallow”.
Looking further in the guide, I saw that South Africa has a “Barred Owl”. It looked totally different than our North American “Barred Owl”, and a check of the Latin name revealed that the South African version didn’t even belong to the same genus as the North American version. Same common name, different species. Or in the case of the Sand Martin ‘ different common name, same species. Why, you might ask, did Linnaeus choose Latin, a dead language, for his system? Precisely because it was dead. Language, as we all know, tends to evolve over time and location. Read a Shakespearean play or watch the classic Richard Harris film “Cromwell” and compare the manner of speaking and writing a few hundred years ago with today. Big difference. Or compare the locution of a resident of Compton, California with that of a resident of Manchester, England. You will be thinking, “Can this be the same language ?” It is…. or at least it started out as the same language (English playwright George Bernard Shaw was only half kidding when he said the British and Americans are two people separated by a common language).
A language not in general usage, however, does not evolve. Linnaeus chose Latin so that it could be used for hundreds of years with minimal adjustment. As well, being a dead language, it did not imply favouritism towards any particular country. The Linnaean system worked so well that it has remained relatively unchanged since it was invented over two hundred years ago.
Personally, I have found familiarity with the Latin names to be very useful. On a bird walk there’s nothing like rattling off the scientific names of a bunch of species to impress some, annoy others and generally sound a whole lot smarter than you really are. Try it ‘ it’s fun!
Actually, there is a much more practical reason for knowing the scientific names of birds. Just ask actor Christopher Walken. In the 1980 big screen adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel “The Dogs of War”, Walken portrays Jamie Shannon, the leader of a band of mercenaries hired by British corporate interests to help overthrow the government of a fictional west African country called Zangaro. Deciding that an advance scouting trip is necessary, Shannon travels to Zangaro in the guise of … you guessed it … a birdwatcher, ostensibly to photograph the country’s vanishing species for a nature magazine.
Upon his arrival, however, the Zangaran authorities are immediately suspicious of the purpose of his trip. In an attempt to blow his cover, Shannon is confronted in the lobby of his hotel by the head of the state security police, who proceeds, with notebook in hand, to quiz him on the scientific names of a number of Zangaro’s rarer bird species. As cool as ice, Shannon correctly recites the Latin names of every species he is asked about, thereby defusing a very tense situation. So there you have it. Those of you planning a career as a mercenary, spy or insurgent, would do well to brush up on your scientific names. Just hope that the authorities in the country to which you are dispatched, haven’t seen that movie!
With the growing popularity of birding there is a much wider selection of field guides than years ago. Currently the premier guide for North American birds is considered to be The National Audubon Society’s “The Sibley Guide to Birds”. This guide is unique in many ways. It has less text descriptions than any previous guide, but compensates for this with superb, detailed illustrations. It is much more comprehensive than any previous guide when it comes to distinguishing different forms of a particular species, whether it be age, race, geographic or seasonal variation. It is the only guide to show virtually every species in flight. As well, it has many very practical field identification tips and species comparisons that I have never seen in other field guides. Overall it is an excellent book with only two relatively minor drawbacks in my view. The first is the anemic text. Over the years I have found text descriptions to be very useful when it comes to things like habitat, idiosyncrasies of behaviour and appearance, nesting habits and a host of other things that may be helpful in identification. The only other shortcoming is that, being roughly twice the size of an average field guide, it is a tad bulky to carry around all day in your field pack. To address this latter shortcoming, two new Sibley field guides are now available entitled The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Much of the material is from the earlier Sibley guide but extensively updated. The biggest improvement though, is in the size. These new guides are much smaller than the original, thus making them true field guides. These two excellent books, along with the National Geographic guide described below, are generally considered to be the premier field guides for North America.
One of the very best field guides available is the fourth edition of The National Geographic Society’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America”. This comprehensive guide is great for layout, illustrations and coverage and it is compact enough to carry around easily in your fanny pack or in the pocket of your cargo pants. Other worthwhile guides include Peterson Field Guide Series “Western Birds” and the revised and updated version of Golden Field Guides from St. Martin’s Press “Birds of North America – A Guide To Field Identification”.
Some field guides use photographs to illustrate the different species. Hitherto I have not been a fan of these kinds of field guides, simply because conventional drawn illustrations can cover more bases in a more practical way. Photographs tend to show a typical plumage, but there is often a lot of plumage variation among different species. A species may look different in the fall than in the spring. An immature bird may look different than the adults. Many species of birds, just like humans, can have dramatic variations in colour and size depending on geographical location. It just isn’t possible to show all of these variations through photographs. As well, with drawn illustrations, the guide can compare similar species in a way that I have yet to see in a book that uses photos. An example would be a single page with a side by side underside view of several hawk species in flight. Or a single page showing all of the shorebirds in flight. These types of comparisons are very useful in the field and usefulness in the field is what a field guide is all about.
I mentioned that, to date, I have not been a fan of the photographic field guide but a reasonably good one is Stoke’s Field Guide to Birds. It is a well planned, concise, useable field guide and comes in separate editions for Eastern and Western North America. Two other additions to the genre have also raised the standard for this type of guide. The first is Kenn Kaufman’s “Focus Guide to the Birds of North America” (published by Houghton Mifflin Co.). This well designed guide manages to cover most bases with photos making it very comprehensive and useable. A worthwhile book. The second is Smithsonian Handbooks “Birds of North America” by Fred J. Alsop III (published by DK Publishing). This guide, like the Peterson Field Guide Series, is published as a separate book for Eastern and for Western regions of North America. It makes good use of photos to illustrate all of the species as well as providing some detail in the descriptions. It includes diagrams of flight patterns, range maps, tips on nest identification as well as migration and conservation status. An excellent book with only two minor shortcomings. One is that, like the Sibley Guide, it is a tad too bulky to be a true “carry around everywhere you go” kind of guide. The second drawback is that you will need two of these bulky books (Western and Eastern Region) to get complete coverage of all the birds in North America.
Most experienced birders will own several different guides for the same region but which one of the aforementioned field guides is the best overall ? Well, if I was restricted to just one guide….or a beginner looking for my very first field guide … that guide would be the National Geographic Society’s “Field Guide to the Birds of North America”. This guide has, in my opinion, the best overall combination of characteristics. The illustrations, text, range maps and comparison tables are very good; the size is very compact so it’s easy to carry around with you all day in the field; and, importantly, it covers all the species for North America (as well as lots of vagrant species) in a single volume.
The BioDiversity Institute offers a fabulous online field guide called the Internet Field Guide To Birds at bdi.org/birdkey/birdframeset.cfm (no ‘www’). You can find identification information for all North American species plus it has a great search and filtration facility. The system allows you to find species by family, common name, scientific name, geographic area, or body characteristics such as size, shape, pattern, or colour. A very useful resource for all birders.
Many of you may be familiar with the four-volume “Birds of British Columbia”. This is a superb publication, but it is not really the best book to help you with basic identification skills (aside from the fact that it’s a little tough to carry four hardcover volumes in your fanny pack on a bird walk). It is more of a scientific record of all the species that have been recorded in the province. It is excellent for finding out what species are where, when you can expect to find them, relative abundance and breeding, wintering and migration habits. It is a must for anyone with an interest in more advanced birding in the province.
With regard to bird finding in the province one of the best publications I have seen is ‘A Birder’s Guide to British Columbia – A Walking Guide to Bird Watching Sites’. This is an excellent paperback pocket book that gives precise directions to find all of the regularly occurring and specialty species of B.C. along loop trips connecting all of the province’s outstanding birding destinations. Maps and a checklist are included. If you’re not sure where to go to find birds in B.C. this is the book for you. This guide, however, does not include Vancouver Island. That section of the province is covered by a sister publication entitled ‘A Birder’s Guide to Vancouver Island’. Both of these books are carried at several of the book locations listed towards the end of this section or you can write to Sandra Hargreaves at:
Steller Press Ltd.
#13-4335 West 10th Avenue
Vancouver, BC V6R 2H6
Phone: (604) 222-2955
Fax: (604) 222-2965
Email: [email protected]
Another excellent location guide is the revised 2000 edition of “A Bird-Finding Guide to Canada” edited by J. Cam Finlay and published by McClelland and Stewart Inc. As this book covers the entire country, it is not as detailed as the previously mentioned guide but it is very well presented and easy to use. It provides concise directions to all of the major birding hotspots in Canada and is available at Chapters Bookstores.
For residents of the Greater Vancouver area, the Vancouver Natural History Society and Whitecap Books have published a great bird finding guide called “The Birder’s Guide to Vancouver and the Lower Mainland”. This book includes detailed descriptions, along with maps, photos and a checklist, of thirty of the best local birding spots and is available at most Vancouver area bookstores and nature specialty shops.
There is an e-mail group dedicated to bird books at groups.yahoo.com/group/birdbooklist (no “www”). It includes previews, reviews, general discussion and buying and selling of all types of field guides and other types of bird books. With some e-mail discussion groups, anybody can access the postings on the internet, but it appears that the postings on “birdbooklist” can only be accessed if you are a subscriber (it’s free to subscribe).
Of immeasurable assistance in bird finding and identification, is song and call recognition. It is not unusual for an experienced birder to stand in a marsh, field, or woodlot, in spring (breeding season when most species are singing) and, without moving from the spot and without seeing a single bird, note the presence of perhaps 25 species or more in a matter of minutes by song alone. Recognizing a call may be the only way you know a particular species is present. The Virginia Rail, the Sora and the American Bittern are relatively common summer residents in B.C.’s wetlands, but you will rarely see one. They are very secretive, however, they are also very vocal, and thus is their presence revealed. Song and call recognition can also help you confirm the identification of something you didn’t get a really good look at. Anyone, who has caught just a brief glimpse of a warbler or vireo in a dense, leafy canopy, knows what I’m talking about. Moreover, certain species groups can only be safely separated in the field by song. An example is that well-known birder’s bane, the “Empidonax” genus of flycatchers. The field guides make reference to subtle differences in appearance, but these can be inconclusive in the field. I have seen individual Empids with some characteristics of one species and some characteristics of another. Frustrating stuff, particularly for the novice birder. This is where familiarity with the songs can be very helpful.
Another good example is the Dowitcher species, the Short-billed and the Long-billed. These two can be difficult to visually distinguish in the field, particularly in winter plumage. Don’t be fooled by the names ‘ the bill on either species varies to the point where the length can overlap: in other words, a long-billed Short-billed Dowitcher may have a longer bill than a short-billed Long-billed Dowitcher. Ummm ‘ got it? Fortunately, any uncertainty is cleared up the moment the bird calls as the two species sound quite different.
The best way to learn the various songs and calls, is through experience in the field, starting naturally with the commoner, most familiar species. It’s great if you can go birding with someone, who is familiar with the songs, and can teach recognition to you, but that shouldn’t stop you if you’re on your own. Over the years, anytime I heard something I didn’t recognize, I would hunt it down to find out what it was. As you might expect, there were many times when I couldn’t find or get a good look at the bird, and many times that, after an hour of careful stalking, it turned out to be a very common species, but that didn’t stop me from a relentless, dogged pursuit of the next “mystery” bird.
If you follow this method, and you are out in the field on a reasonably regular basis, you will be delighted at how fast your knowledge of bird sounds increases. And you never know … sometimes a “mystery” bird can turn out to be something special. In December of 1999, a bird call emanating from the woods near Sechelt snagged the attention of an experienced birder, not because he recognized it, but because he didn’t. Following the sound, he discovered it was coming from a female Hooded Warbler, only the third time this species has ever been recorded in the province. I guess she was never told that, as a member of that colourful species, she was supposed to be in Central America by the time December rolled around!
Another excellent way to learn vocalizations is with bird song soundtracks. One of the better bird sound CDs available is “Stoke’s Field Guide to Bird Songs – Western Edition”. This is a four CD set that covers 551 different species found in Western North America. You will be hard pressed to find another recording as comprehensive as this one. Two other very good bird sound CDs are “Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Bird Songs” and “Bird Sounds of Canada” (this latter CD is produced in Canada by Great Wildlife Recordings, Box 1061, Manitock, ON, K4M 1A9, Canada, and distributed through Holborne Distributing, Box 309 S, Mount Albert, ON, L0G 1M0, Canada). Usually all three of these CDs are stocked at local wild bird or nature stores. If not, you can order the first two through the internet from ABA Sales and the latter directly from Holborne Distributing.
A Saltspring Island company, Neville Recording, produces several excellent regional bird sound CDs such as “Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast” , “Birds of the Kootenays”, “Bird Songs of the Creston Valley”, “Bird Songs of the Okanagan” and “Songs and Sounds of the Canadian Rockies”. Neville Recording can be found at:
Bird Songs from Neville Recording
138 Castle Cross Road
Saltspring Island, BC V8K 2G2
Phone: (250) 537-4121
E-mail: [email protected]
A big trend in computing these days is, rather than buying a proprietary product like a software program or a CD, downloading what you need directly through the internet. With regard to bird songs, this trend is still nascent, but expect to see such avenues for learning bird sounds open up in the near future.
An excellent website that is in the vanguard of this trend is www.naturesound.org. This site allows non-commercial downloading and use (with permission) of a very comprehensive collection of bird sounds. As well it has a great online store that allows you to purchase CDs, field guides and a variety of other birding gear.
The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University has a huge collection of bird calls and songs, but accessibility through the internet is still one or two years away. Meanwhile birders can buy several of excellent CD compilations from the library at the Cornell Birding Shop at www.withoutbricks.com/cornellbirdingshop.
Another location for internet based access is www.birdsongbytes.com. The “Dawn Chorus I” program, which can be downloaded directly through the internet, includes both images and songs of 136 common birds of temperate eastern North America. One of the nice features of this program is that, once it is on your hard drive, you can then download the song and image of selected species onto your palm pilot or other handheld wireless computer for use in the field. Hopefully, in time, Birdsongbytes will expand their offering to include more species and the other half of the continent as well.
I would highly recommend any of these recordings if you’re interested in developing this aspect of birding. Just keep in mind that there can be variations and dialects in bird songs so use of these guides is best tempered with field experience.
Most of the aforementioned books and CD’s, plus many other fine bird publications, can usually be found at any of the following stores:
- Wild Birds Unlimited (several locations)
- Chapters Book Stores (several locations)
- Wild Bird Habitat Store (Chilliwack, B.C.)
- The Victorian Bird House (Victoria, B.C.)
- The Gift Shop at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, British Columbia, Canada.
As well, many of the publications can be ordered through the Internet. ABA Sales is an excellent site. Lots of other birding websites listed at the end of the Clubs, Publications & the Internet section are gravitating towards online stores that offer growing selections of bird books, tapes, CDs, optics, clothing and accessories. For example, any of the comprehensive Peterson Field Guide Series can be ordered through their website. Due to the growing popularity of nature study, all of the regular, commercial book sites now carry a range of birding publications as well. Some of the larger, general book sites include Amazon.com, Chapters.Indigo.ca and Barnes & Noble.com.