Summary ꙳ Objectives
▹ Birds are truly universal and can be found almost everywhere on our planet! Watching them is a window to the Real. It connects you deeply with Nature.
Observing birds gives us a sense of wonder while teaching us patience and focus. Once you step into their world, you realize how rich that world is: from the relationships that they form within and among species, to how they behave, sing, help each other and care for their families, how they solve complex problems. It does not take long either to understand how important ecologically and spiritually they are to us –the human species.
In this Nature Circle, we peep into their lives and practice the skills of observing, identifying, sketching, marveling at birds. Enjoy! ツ
Type » Lesson
Level » Naturalist + Sketching
When? » Anytime
Where? » Part Outdoors
Time » 4 hr+ total and remember to bird & draw regularly!
Themes & Skills
Focus ⋆ Observing ⋆ Wildlife Watching ⋆ Ecology ⋆ Ethology ⋆ Recording ⋆ Sketching ⋆ Systems Thinking
- Internet access for gaining knowledge about birds and their habitats
- Bird field guides (also consider one of the local fauna & flora)
- A pair of binoculars
- Pencils, paper, your notebook and/or nature journal and sketching supplies
- iNaturalist App on your phone or tablet to record sightings but also to help identify species (if possible)
"Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?" — David Attenborough
It is very rewarding to be a birder: You just need to step outside, and there they are! Birds are everywhere, on all continents, inhabiting most of all Earth habitats from tropical rainforests to the polar regions. You can't escape them, and that's a blessing. Let's discover and enjoy together the magic of their world! ツ
"All birds, of course, are miracles, and humans have known this for millennia. We have looked to birds as oracles. Our hearts soar on their wings and their songs. Even the tiniest bird can teach us that life is larger than humankind alone." ― Sy Montgomery
Birds are the closest living relatives of crocodilians. They are descendants of extinct dinosaurs with feathers, making them the only surviving dinosaurs. Birds evolved into warm-blooded vertebrates. They have many unique characteristics which distinguish them from other animals including a toothless beaked jaw, their feathers and wings, the laying of hard-shelled eggs, and hollow bones which make for a strong yet lightweight skeleton.
This being said, they are also very much like us in that they need proper food, clean air and water, they need space and healthy habitats to thrive, they also court, fight, care for and help their families and allies. And like us, they solve complex problems. In short, they are remarkable and deserve our respect and our protection.
They are an extremely diverse group, comprising of more than 10,000 species worldwide (about 914 different species in the U.S.). They come in all colors, shapes, and sizes ranging from the 5 cm (2 in) bee hummingbird to the 2.75 m (9 ft) ostrich. More than half of them are perching birds (also known as the order of passerines). The extensive variations in their forms, songs, locomotion, behaviors, and rituals, make it impossible to ever get bored watching them: There is always something unique about the species that you are observing at a moment in time, not counting the particular behavior that an individual itself exhibits and specific to him/her.
Which bird is our favorite? Some of us at EwA are true bird nerds and have had the chance to observe more than 800 different species of birds all over the world. We must admit that it's hard for us to single out any of them as being a favorite. They're all world gems! Though... one that keeps fascinating us is a rather drab looking one, but what a performer he is! It is the magnificent lyrebird (from South Australia). Watch and listen to him (on the left below): Didn't he fool (and impress) you?!? Then, there is this gigantic prehistoric looking stork from Eastern Africa! What an awesome beast! Although it has a dark side (as many storks do), as you can see in the video snippet below (on the right)...
The importance of birds to our own species is often overlooked. They have had a place in all human cultures since our very beginnings, marking the passage of the seasons, inspiring our music and poetry. Besides the beauty, and the sense of wonder that birds give us intellectually and spiritually, their presence in or their disappearance from a habitat tells us a lot about the health of that habitat, and the consequences for our species. The many services that they provide us include pollination, seed dispersal, recycling, carcasses cleanup.
True or False?
1. All birds have two wings
2. All birds fly
3. Birds are the only living animals that have feathers
4. Birds lose and replace their worn or damaged feathers
5. All baby birds hatch covered in downy feathers
6. Birds are vertebrate animals
7. All birds are warm-blooded
8. All birds have thick, heavy bones that provide the structure they need to fly
9. Birds have poor eyesight
10. Birds have heartbeats that are slower than humans
11. All birds lay eggs
12. Most birds eat worms
13. All birds sing
14. All birds migrate
15. Male and female birds of some species look different
Answers » 1.T ⋆ 2.F ⋆ 3.T ⋆ 4.T ⋆ 5.F ⋆ 6.T ⋆ 7.T ⋆ 8.F ⋆ 9.F ⋆ 10.F ⋆ 11.F ⋆ 12.F ⋆ 13.F ⋆ 14.F ⋆ 15.T
Activity » Bird & Draw
"Birds are important because they are a window that mirrors our own humanness. By observing bird behaviors and learning the details of their lives, we learn about ourselves and what it means to be both fully human and fully alive." ― GrrlScientist
The first key to drawing birds is to have a basic understanding of their anatomy. It's also important to have a sense of the many variations in the different characteristics of what makes a bird a bird so that you know what to look for and be able to spot differences among them much faster.
1 - Basic anatomy
Nothing beats an interactive app to learn the ins-and-outs of a bird, and it happens that the Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has a great one. Play with it and get familiar with the different parts of a bird. Ourselves we like to test our knowledge and refresh our memory every so often. Explore it, it's quite fun!
Birds come in many various sizes and shapes. Knowing the main bird shapes and having a sense of their size is the first key to identifying a bird in the field, and sketching it because these are the first characteristics that you see in the field. Become familiar with bird silhouettes and practice evaluating sizes in relation to something else that you know.
3 - Bird beak & feet
The beak is another good feature to observe as they also give a key to what kind of bird you're looking at. Beaks are designed to perform important functions: eating, getting nesting material, and by looking at a bird’s beak we get clues about the bird’s lifestyle, and therefore what family the bird is likely to belong to.
Another identification element is the feet. There are again there are many variations all shaped depending on the habitat the bird lives in.
There are many more elements to pay attention to when observing birds: size, relative proportions, wing details and shape, specific field marks, behaviors, but getting a firm knowledge about the above is a good start.
The second key to drawing is to not fear it. Just go for it and practice. It's much easier than you think... Remember: the point is not to produce an "oeuvre" but to record information and learn from it. You'll be surprised to see that with little practice and with knowing a few technics, you'll be able to move quickly from rough representations to drawings that actually please you.
Don't over think it. Just loosen your hand and range of motions, place the pencil on the paper, look at the subject and start moving your pencil on the paper.
When we teach nature sketching, we like to start the class with a few exercises to loosen up and clean out our mind:
2 - Modified blind contour drawing, where this time we allow ourselves to look at the bird once in a while, and still try drawing without lifting the pencil.
3 - Non-dominant hand drawing, where one uses the ‘other’ hand to draw what s/he sees. That is, if you're a right-handed person, draw with your left's or vice-versa. You can also do the same exercise with a pencil in each hand, drawing with both hands at the same time!
These 3 exercises break mental barriers, and when done in the context of a class, it is a fun and bonding exercise.
4 - Then, we move to diagrammatic bird sketching, where we focus on basic shapes (limiting the number of shapes we draw), as well as relatives dimensions, and positive/negative spaces.
5 - Quick sketches from pics (from bird guidebooks and online guides) the birds that we are likely to see in the field that day. This allows us to get familiar with the shape, the various characteristics and the markings of the birds. This will help better identifying or guess the birds later on. And it also allows us to imprint our brains with that fresh knowledge.
While drawing we chat about the behavior, the range, habitats and fun facts about the birds we draw.
6 - Then we finish our practice session with sketching from videos so that we exercise quick drawing of moving birds.
7 - Ready for the real thing ▹ Go outside, sketch & enjoy!
Again, there are tons of material available out there to learn how to sketch and draw birds. We particularly like the John Muir Laws resources. They have a great archive of advice, lessons and teaching videos. Check it out!
Activity » Birding in Action
"I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence - that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light." ― Lynn Thomson
Birding is fun and accessible as birds can be found everywhere. Having learned the basics of bird's anatomy in the previous activity will help to identify them in the field. However, sometimes it can be of little use when spotting birds at a distance only for a brief moment, or when they are either rustling in vegetation, moving quickly in the shade of leafy branches or are far away in flight and backlit. Additionally, a bird may look very different depending on the season, its age, its gender, the weather...
So what do we do then to recognize a bird? That comes with both preparation and practice. But it's a fun observation & guessing game!
We don't pretend to give you all keys to birding, on a single page. It's simply impossible. But we give you tips and references to start a great discovery journey. There is an infinite supply of books, guides, and videos to help you become good birders. It's quite overwhelming actually. So for your convenience, we list our favorite references at the end, check them out (Birding Tips &Tools).
But for a start, here are a few keys to help you be a happy and successful birder.
1 - Know the birding etiquette
Before even starting, it is important to get the rules of birding right and to understand that the ultimate behavior of a stellar birder should be that her/his behavior does not impact in any ways the birds' comfort, habits and the habitats where they live and which they depend upon. In other words, a successful birder is a quiet and completely invisible birder.
Get familiar with our 9 Easy Birding Rules and revisit them often. Besides helping protect the birds and their habitats, respecting a good birding etiquette is also a great help to increase our chances of sightings and enhance the quality of our observations.
2 - Have a good field guide & know how to use it
Get a good bird field guide of your area, and spend some time with it before hitting the field.
If you’re new to it, then you’ll notice that your field guide does not list the birds in an alphabetic order. Such a listing order would be useless anyway unless you know the name of the bird that you’re looking at. Birds are not sorted by colors either, and for very good reasons: our perception of colors varies greatly, birds of the same species might wear different colors depending on its gender or age, and many birds change colors and even appearance throughout the seasons. Listing by habitats won’t work as well as many migrate or chose different regions, and sometimes even habitats altogether depending on the seasons.
So how do field guides order their birds then? Bird field guides are organized (as most animal-focused field guides do) according to the evolutionary taxonomic order. This means that the sorting of the birds is based on shared evolutionary traits. As scientific discoveries refine species classification (now relying on DNA rather than fossil and morphological characteristics), birds often get reclassified. It’s a little puzzling and sometimes annoying for us birders who maintain sighting lists (as we have to reclassify past sightings), but it’s all for better understanding and protecting our winged friends.
Without understanding taxonomic order, trying to look up a bird is like trying to find a word in the dictionary without knowing the alphabet. So becoming familiar with the taxonomic sequence is an essential task in becoming a birder. No worry: All good field guides teach it, and in no time you get the gist of it!
What we do ▹ We also bring a general fauna/flora field guide along with us. There are more than birds out there, there are also plants, trees, fungi, and other animals. And all those are keys to help to identify the type of food that a bird is munching on and the kind of habitats those birds live in. This means that getting a better understanding of the environment as a whole helps to eliminate or confirming a potential identification.
3 - Study the birds
Get the bird checklist of the area you plan to visit. This will help you focus your attention to those birds that you can expect. Then get familiar with the birds from that list, reading in your guide about their range and habitat. Learn a little about their behaviors and about how they sound before getting in the field. You can learn more about birds specifics consulting sites such as the All ABout Birds or/and the North American Audubon online guides to Birds and Birdwatching. They are beautiful visually and regularly updated.
Being prepared increases your chances of identifying correctly the birds you spot. Birds don't stay still, they get startled easily, hide in their surroundings in a blink of an eye, and all that knowledge will greatly improve classifying the information that you see and hear, and help to eliminate what it can't be.
For instance, imagine you're boating in Maine late spring. You spot a bird that resembles (and is indeed) a puffin. Puffins are kind of unique in their stocky appearance. Well, there are 3 species of puffins in the U.S., which one could it be then? You look at the features and realize that the one you're looking at has apparently no tuft, then it can't be the Tufted Puffin. You're not sure about the colors of its beak, as it was flying fairly far away and backlit. You can't evaluate its size either as there are no points of reference... But if you know the range of the Puffins that are North America regulars, then you would know immediately that it can't be a Horned Puffin which is only found offshore of the Western United States. This one is the common Atlantic Puffin, that spends the autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, and returns to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring.
What we do ▹ Once thing that we became pretty good at over the years is to recognize a bird by size and shape. That's not surprising since shapes are what birders spot the most (and briefly) in the field, rather than colors or clear markings. Recognizing shapes is actually a means of narrowing the potential candidates. So, get familiar with the main bird shapes and you'll see that you'll improve rapidly your spotting and ID skills.
4 - Know when to go
This means considering the time of the day. For a lot of birds, early morning or evening are times of activity. However, for some birds, it really does not matter. For instance, on a very cold morning of December, we took a group of bird enthusiasts to a snowy owl tracking adventure. Some were surprised that our outing was happening in the middle of the day: aren't owls nocturnal? No, not all owls are. To our greatest delight, snowy owls hunt by daylight.
Speaking of cold: If you bird in a bitterly cold and windy weather, look in areas where they could potentially be sheltered and look along sunny edges. When seeing a lot of birds in an area, wonder why: is there food? Is that a transit place? Where are they coming from (or going to)? It's worth coming back to that spot other days (like us birds develop habits and 'food shop' in the same locations).
What we do ▹ We bookmarked the birding hot spots in our area (Middlesex county in Massachusetts). Regularly we check what's being sighted around. Who knows... it might spur us into going birding that very day or soon after!
5 - Few field skills to keep in mind
Move slowly, quietly, gently. Follow movements (practice a wide angle vision), and sounds. Check predators (listen to alarm calls). Watch for flock behavior.
What we do ▹ We regularly revisit the EwA Birding Etiquette because it puts us in a respectful and caring mindset. We practice walking quietly, avoiding ruffling leaves anywhere there is wildlife. In the field, we whisper information to each other only when we need to (rather than speaking at a normal volume). We definitely dress drably rather than with flashy or unnatural colors for the habitat we visit. Yes, some say that birds don't care about how we dress. That's not true, and it also depends on the bird(s). But no matter what, there is wildlife around those birds, and that wildlife cares: that's enough for us to 'down' dress and respect that wildlife.
6 - Record information — keep a diary
In the field, have your notebook handy and list multiple field marks and traits of the birds that you are observing, as well as make notes and of its surroundings. Record relative sizes and proportions. Sketch quickly (or snap a pic) to memorize characteristics that will help you later identify that bird.
There are many different ways of keeping notes and recording your sightings. Find the way that works best for you and consider also noting information that would be helpful not only to you but to scientists as well. Citizen scientists recordings are becoming a very valuable tool for researchers who study and therefore protect avian species and populations.
What we do ▹ Besides sketching and recording information for the purpose of sharing and educating, we also have a Life list (on Bubo Listing and that we intend to migrate to eBird sometime in the future). Additional to this bird specific listing, we now record our sightings information on our iNaturalist EwA Nature Circles project. Quite a few of those records are now labeled 'Research Grade', meaning that they are usable by scientists worldwide. How cool is that?!?
7 - Practice spotting
If you are to become a serious birder, you'll need at least a serious pair of binoculars. Now the bigger is not the better, and it does not mean that you need to pay a fortune either. You only need a good pair of Birding binos. As for scopes, you don't need one in all situations. We usually travel without, and only take a scope for specific situations: hawks watch, birding shorebirds...
We tell you the essentials of optics in our EwA Packing Guide, just have a look.
As for how to use binoculars, below are short instructions to get you started. With little practice, it simply becomes natural to spot both without and with binos.
What we do ▹ We have a pair of binoculars in our car, just in case. That pair is an old 8x42 porro prism Nikon pair. It was our first birding binos (rather inexpensive), and we love them. We like the light that comes through, it still does the job. We also have compact 10x42 roof prism binoculars that we take with us anywhere we travel. Combined with our field bridge camera that has an 80x magnification, we're golden in most situations. And for those long shots at snowy owls across large tundra-like fields, or for spotting hawks on the horizon we bring our scope (check our EwA Packing Guide on optics for more details).
8 - Join a group!
A great way to speed up your birding learning is to join a group. Birders are nerdy for sure, but they are so enthusiastic to share their knowledge. So go ahead ask many questions, learn from them!
And if you happen to be in our area (Massachusetts), just join one of our Nature Circles events. Many of them are birds and birding focused. We have a lot of fun, we share info and care about wildlife and it shows. Come along!
9 - Be a humble birder & thank the birds
Birding is a knowledge and adventure journey. We've been doing it for a few decades now, and if there is one thing that we've learned it is that a good birder is a curious and humble birder.
Birds are fascinating. They are a window into an infinite world of wonders. They're hard to observe sometimes, and so they teach us patience. They are confusing too and we've made countless mistakes, innumerable misidentifications. So make an effort to know the common mistakes and challenges of bird identification.
We've also learned in the process, that birds are not what we think they are: little mechanistic things for us to consume one way or the other. They are varied, colorful, minuscule and giant, fast or clumsy. Some are incredible complex problem solvers. They can be playful, mischievous, caring, intelligent, and also brutal at times. They can be depressed and mourn their friends. In short, with them, we've realized that we know so little about them but also about the millions of other species, most much older than us and with whom we share this planet. Birds teach us humility, empathy, and fuel our desire for knowledge.
Discuss » Threats & How we Can Help
"As the human population rockets past 7 billion, natural habitats are increasingly lost. Those that remain are dotted with man-made threats. As a result, hundreds of bird species are spiraling toward extinction. " ― the American Bird Conservancy
We need to learn more about birds for sure, but without waiting for the science to catch up, it is still key to understand that birds, a group that has been roaming the Earth millions of years before us (humans), are critical to the functioning of healthy ecosystems. They pollinate, they disperse seeds, they create biodiversity, they clean our environment, protecting our crops from pests. Yet they are declining rapidly, victims of an increasing number of threats.
BirdLife International is the Red List Authority for birds, coordinating the process of evaluating all of the world's bird species against the Red List categories and criteria in order to assess their extinction risk. As of 2015, BirdLife has established that 1,375 bird species (13% of the total, or roughly one in eight according to the most accepted estimated number of species) are threatened with extinction.
A top threat is habitat loss and fragmentation. Millions of acres of bird habitat are lost or degraded every year due to development, agriculture, and forestry practices. Indeed, just in the U.S., development has accelerated nationwide to meet increasing societal demands for food, space, and energy. This development can result in habitat loss, degradation, change, or fragmentation, reducing the availability of resources to meet the needs of birds. It is increasingly important to identify, conserve, and protect important bird habitats.
Other important threats that are impacting birds are:
- lack of resources (money is not spent on them, priority is on other things)
- collisions (e.g., windows, transportation)
- pollution including by plastic, pesticides, etc. (e.g., 99% of all seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050)
- poaching with a porting of it fueling the exotic bird pet trade
- climate change (e.g. altering or changing their habitats)
- invasive species and pets (e.g., displacement due to invasive species, kills from domesticated cats)
What can we do to protect them?
There are very simple things we can do right now, right at home, to help birds.
1 - The first thing we can do is to appreciate birds, and pay attention to them if we haven't yet. Let's go out, go birding on our own or join a group. Birding requires to open the door of our house and look out and up, and venture a little further maybe. Birding is that accessible! And let's do it in a manner that is non-intrusive to the birds and totally ethical (master the 9 Easy Birding Rules ).
2 - Learn about those that live around you. Read about the threats that birds are victims of. Share that knowledge with others. Show your friends and local young people the value of birds and other wildlife.
3 - Become a citizen scientist, and help scientists around the world with your observation. When you see a bird, get into the habit of noting information about that bird, and to submit your observation to platforms such as mentioned in this lesson (e.g., iNaturalist, ebird).
4 - Get involved in local and backyard bird monitoring projects and clubs.
5 - Create a bird habitat at home, that helps them. Erect clean seed and nectar feeders, provide clean water, and sheltered areas when possible. Plant native species that favor local insects, and therefore provide a good food supply to our birds. Avoid the use of chemical pesticides in your garden.
6 - Make your windows visible to avoid collisions. Encourage your colleagues and your workplace to turn off the lights at night.
7 - Keep cats in check. Make sure that your cat(s) can't access them. Yes, sure it's natural for cats to go after birds. We have cats, we know that. But the issue is not that, it's their total number, and the imbalance that goes with it. It is said that there are an estimated 600 million cats in the world, including pets, strays, homeless and feral cats. For comparison, the number of wild cats is around 100 million. Another relative number to have in mind is the number of birds killed by those cats. It is said that cats that live in the wild or indoor pets allowed to roam outdoors kill from 1.4 billion to as many as 3.7 billion birds in the continental U.S. alone each year. No matter how we look at it, there is no doubt that humans love their cats and allow them to breed prolifically, and so that we have a great supply of them for the many generations to come. But cats are not endangered, and they rather thrive thanks to us, while birds are not and struggling. But again there is an easy solution: let's keep our cats in check (indoors). Make sure your city has a neuter program for feral cats. That will help.
8 - Favor shade-grown coffee. Shade-grown coffee plantations support higher numbers of bird species than full-sun coffee plantations (the result of deforestation). Forested, shade-grown coffee plantations also benefit other wildlife and the people who live there.
We never miss an opportunity to get outside as often as we can throughout the seasons. Life is busy for all, but we make sure we set an hour aside every week to get outside with our journal. Every time that we go out for doing chores and such, we collect leaves, acorns, and other 'Fall'en objects. Once home, we check our identifications looking through our guides and browsing websites that list local species. Doing so, we solidify our learning and knowledge, we get more familiar with our surroundings each time, and we grow our appreciation of what we have right here, at home.
References & Exploring Further
» Ecology & Conservation
Why Birds Matter (NPR) » Novelist and birding enthusiast Jonathan Franzen talks about the beauty, wonder, and threats facing the world’s birds.
The Life of Birds (BBC Documentary) » A fantastic natural history of birds, to get you started on your birding journey!
How Many Kinds of Birds Are There and Why Does It Matter? by Barrowclough, G.F., & al. (2016)
Become an EwA iNaturalist » Help scientists worldwide and record your sightings on iNaturalist. It's easy, fun and rewarding.
For the Love of Birds – TED Talk (2017) » From the glorious crested guinea fowl to the adulterous African jacana to vultures that can pick a zebra carcass clean in 30 minutes, Washington Wachira wants us all to get to know the marvelous species of birds that share the planet with us. If you're not already a fan of earth's feathermakers –or concerned about their conservation– you will be after you watch this delightful talk.
Merlin Bird Guide App (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Birding ID Skills ▹ Get Started (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Sibley's Birding Basics by D.A., Sibley (2002) » A short little book great for all, to grasp quickly or relearn how to identify birds, using the clues in feathers, habitats, behaviors, and sounds.
Field Guide to Advanced Birding » to help you understanding what you see and hear
How to Bird Watch (WikiHow)
eBird » Another important recording platform known to all birders, that also helps scientists to research and protect birds worldwide.
» Sketching & Journaling
Nature & Naturalist Journaling » Why, How to… » With references & examples of wonderful nature sketchers and observers to reassure and inspire us.
The EwA Naturalist Daybag » Preparation is key, our Nature bag is always ready to go, so don't have to think about and risk forgetting important items!
John Muir Laws » An incredible archive of classes, videos to practice and perfect how to draw birds.