I was in the dog park a few months ago with our little shit Darwin. He bolts around like a lightning bolt and tears up the turf underneath his toes when he chases a tennis ball. Or the other dogs. Or a squirrel. Pretty much anything.
From above I heard a screech. I craned my head upwards and took in the form of a large bird. I like to call them “raptors” because it makes me think of these flying hunters as winged dinosaurs. A few people around looked upwards and shielded the sun from their eyes. A woman asked, “What kind of bird is that?”
An older gentleman to my left, he had a nice beard with salt-and-pepper sprinkled throughout, answered her, “That there’s a red-tail.”
I looked towards him and offered him a respectful nod. Not everyday I meet someone else who gives a shit about birds, let alone cares so much that they can identify a few species. It’s a shame, because it’s a relatively easy skill to pick up, and when you identify birds accurately you get the respect of bird nerds like myself. Here’s a few you’re likely to come across with external links if you want more comprehensive information.
The American Robin
If there’s one bird on this list you’re going to instantly recognize, it’s the American robin. The harbinger of spring, the robin is a year-round resident for most places in the United States. Commonly sighted searching for worms in the lawn, robins combine exceptional vision, astute hearing, and good old-fashioned touch to find their desired meals. Something pretty wild? A robin can eat up to fourteen-feet of earthworms in a single day! If you’ve got leaf piles in corners of your yard consider leaving them in place for a while; robins have an easy time finding worms and other insects to eat in the damp piles of leaf litter.
A common sight in meadows and wetlands, the red-winged blackbird is about as handsome as they come. Males are a coal-black with flashes of red and yellow on the wings; the size of the colored patches determines how much the lady blackbirds like the males. On that note, female red-winged blackbirds are a mottled brown color and a bit more difficult to immediately identify. Red-winged blackbirds have a distinctive call, a sort of “low low SUPER HIGH” tumbling call. The next time you find yourself around cat-tails, a pond, or old farmland, sneak a peek for these dashing fellows and listen to their wonderful call.
Ah, the mourning dove. A beautiful bird often spotted sitting on power lines, in tree branches, and bullying away other birds underneath the feeder. Relatives to pigeons, the mourning dove is a much more beautiful bird with a gentle cooing call. If you start them (they’re rarely spotted alone, usually in pairs or small groups), they’ll fly away in a sudden flurry, their wing-tips whistling as they depart. Their rock-grey coloring makes it difficult to distinguish them when they’re on the ground, but their plump forms are easily spotted when they’re perched somewhere.
Far as I see it, the european starling is the king of invasive species. They were introduced in New York at the turn of the twentieth century and have had a population explosion. Talented mimics, the starling will often be seen in massively sized flocks that number in the hundreds and thousands. They move like a school of fish when in groups this size. Beautiful birds, it’s fun to watch them work across the front yard in massive quantities, chirping and squawking and being loudmouths. They’ll suddenly take off in unison, the sound of hundreds of wing beats flushing through the air. A beauty, but potentially a pain in the ass and one of the most likely birds you’re going to encounter.
If it’s big, it’s burly, and it’s scanning the ground for rabbits and other meals, it’s probably a red-tailed hawk. There are other hawk species you might encounter, but it’s a safe bet that if you call it a red-tail you’re right. They have broad wings, and their immature coats are wildly different from those of an adult, but the characteristic screeching is a solid identifying clue. They have a hard time shutting up, to be honest. The one in this picture here was spotted at a public garden. I snagged a quick picture of it before the bastard took off from its perch and dove talons-first into a hedge. It grasped onto a baby rabbit and stood there for a few moments, showing off its hunting prowess, before flying back to its nest. Pretty bad ass.
In the long list of favorite birds, the turkey vulture is at the top of my list. I’ve got tons of memories of hiking to the cliff sides that line the forests where I grew up, a long journey just to watch these tireless birds soar effortlessly in search of a meal. You’re likely to spot these guys while driving on the highway, hiking in hilly areas, and… well, just about anywhere. Besides their huge size and bald, red heads, they’re immediately identifiable because they almost never flap their wings while aloft. Other places to spot them are in huge groups in the wintertime, roosting together for warmth, and hovered over a delicious pile of roadkill. Turkey vultures can smell their meals from up to five miles away. Holy shitballs. And one other interesting tidbit… vultures in the Old World are not directly related to vultures in the New World. Their role in the environment is so important that two entirely separate lineages evolved to fill the same niche.
Great Blue Heron
The old man of the lake, the great blue heron is that long-legged, grumpy looking bird you’ll see stalking the shallows of any body of water. Or maybe you’ve seen it flying overhead and thought to yourself, “Holy shit, is that a dinosaur?”, remarking that whatever it was sure looks like a freaking pterodactyl. Remaining incredibly still and walking with careful diligence, the great blue heron will use its spear-like bill to eat up fish, frog, crabs, and other tasty water-based delicacies. They’re handsome birds, if you can get past how ugly they are, and are a guaranteed sight at most bodies of water.
So there you go, a few birds you can more easily identify. Knowledge for its own sake is great, but its also nice to impress somebody with a little bird knowledge. And, I mean, if they aren’t impressed by birds, are they really worth your time?