Getting to Know the Birds June 2001

By Michele L. Tremblay
Boscawen Newsvine, June/July 2001

Did you know that some birds rub ants on their feathers to release an acid that helps control mites? That a Hummingbird egg measures a mere half-inch? That Common Loon dives have been recorded at depths of 600 feet?

The world of birds is endlessly fascinating. Worldwide, millions of people feed birds in their backyards and travel to locations near and far to catch a glimpse of a beautiful, rare, or exotic avian.

If you’re interested in getting started on birding, acquiring an identification guide is essential. Visiting a local bookstore to compare guides is a good first step [On my last visit, I found that Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord had a great selection]. Choosing a guide is often a process of trying friends’ books or purchasing two or more to see which works best for you. Ask your friends what books they use and why. In some cases, you might find that having more than one guide is helpful to identify tricky birds. Some guides use photographs, while some have a variety of drawings and paintings that blend or homogenize species’ appearance variations. Commonly-used guides include those written or published by National Geographic, Golden, Peterson, Sibley, Stokes, and Audubon. Bincoculars help you see small details that really make the difference in bird identification. Since birds are often heard and not seen, you might wish to purchase a tape or CD so that you can learn how to identify them by ear.

If you already have a guide or want to take the next step in learning about birds, try The Birder’s Handbook, A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. This book is designed to be a companion to your identification guide. Each species is referenced by the page on which illustrations for that bird can be found in most common identification. The left-hand page of the book contains presents information in both text and picture symbols detailing breeding habits, preferred diet, nest type, flight patterns, and more. On the right page are narratives or essays describing subjects covering a broad range of topics including historical information, wing shapes, how birds hear and see, bird-related laws, and the evolution of eggs and their colors. The book is not only a valuable reference but the essays are also enjoyable to read.

If you feed birds or want to learn how to get started, The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding and Birds at Your Feeder, a Guide to Feeding Habits, Behavior, Distribution, and Abundance are two excellent non-identification guides that explain bird diets, habitats, and behavior. These books primarily discuss birds likely to visit feeders. The FeederWatcher’s Guide, in particular, details information about feed, seed, feeder-type, and habitat preferences with real-life examples of improvements you can make in your own backyard.

If you want to take your interest in birds to the next step, consider becoming a “citizen scientist.” There are a number of programs that provide identification posters, guidance materials, and data sheets to record your sightings. The data is utilized to create bird migration, feeding, and breeding maps. In some programs, bird diseases are also tracked and studied. Project FeederWatch gives its citizen scientists the options of online data entry and email newsletters. Because most of these programs are active during the late fall and winter, now is the time to order your kits so that they arrive in time to begin recording data in November.

Participating in one of these programs not only provides scientists with invaluable data, it can enhance your birdwatching experience by honing and focusing your identification and observation skills. Program include ProjectFeeder Watch and several “bird counts” sponsored by the Audubon Society of NH (603.226.9909 or Birds at Your Feeder draws upon data and anecdotal information from volunteers summarized by Project FeederWatch (607. 254.2427 or Certain species have been identified as priorities for data gathering by the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program of the NH Department of Fish and Game (603. 271.3421 or You can also visit for a list of references, resources, including a link to “nest box cam 2001” site where you can see in real-time cavity nesting birds.

A special note about hummingbirds.

Feeders for these wonderful, tiny creatures are becoming more popular. The red coloring added to commercial mixes and some homemade formulae results in fatal kidney damage to these birds. Enjoy these wonderful small visitors with a safe and inexpensive alternative. Make your own hummingbird food by mixing one part sugar to three parts water. You don’t need to make much—the food should be changed every few days to avoid illness-causing fermentation.

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