The Layered Evolution of a Birder

I have been thinking about my evolution as a birder lately. I have noticed a kind of layering that has been added stage wise to my perspective on birds.

The initial stage, which started for me as a kid, involved rigorous visual identification of birds. I was raised on the Roger Tory Peterson field marks system that I learned from a dog eared copy of his 1947 edition of "A Field Guide to the Birds", which I still have and treasure. I was also given copies of a National Geographic book from 1964 entitled "Song and Garden Birds of North America", which I also still have and treasure. I ended up spending many cumulative hours just looking at these books and memorizing the field marks and the general appearance of the birds. I loved the idea of puzzling out the identity of a new bird. this became the basis for the fun of birdwatching as it was called in those days.

The next phase was to be revealed to me during a University of Wisconsin Department of Zoology field trip to Mexico in 1975. I was the only birdwatcher in the group so I was off by myself scanning the trees. It was exciting because since it was so far a field from my typical northern birding haunts I could always be prone to seeing something new and exotic. I spotted a nondescript striped looking bird in the trees and began to puzzle out the identity. I was stumped for quite a while and then I noticed the thick beak and figured it to be a grosbeak. I looked in the grosbeak pages in my field guide and lo and behold the bird was revealed to me - a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It was then that the door opened in my mind - you have got to consider females! It seems so obvious now but I had grown up on the visual identification of birds and the males dominated my perspective. This perspective was reinforced on a trip one during a trip to High Island Texas (the subject of an earlier blog). I was watching a female Orchard Oriole (which is green) in the trees when I overheard a couple of elderly ladies debating the identity of the bird. In deference to the green color they were thinking vireo. Apparently they had not yet passed through the stage that had started for me a number of years earlier.

The next phase involved incorporating songs into my identification repertoire. I had wanted to do this for many, many years and I obtained a bunch of recordings in an effort to do so. But somehow I just couldn't seem to remember the songs just by listening to them from a recording. The breakthrough came a few years back when I came across a DVD produced by a local birder entitled "Birds!Birds!Birds!" This DVD is a multimedia presentation for about 200 birds found in eastern North America. It simultaneously presents a picture and/or a video of the bird, along with the song followed by a narrator identifying the species and describing a mnemonic for the song. It turns out I am a visual learner because this created an explosion of learning for me. I needed to repetitiously see the bird and hear the song at the same time to be able to remember the song. Eureka! My newly enfranchised song skills were evident to me the other day when I first identified a Blue-headed Vireo by song and then laid eyes on it to confirm the identity. After initially hearing the song, I had recognized the vireo cadence and then upon further listening I puzzled out the species. Another dimension of enjoyment had been added.

The final phase was pointed out to me recently when I was walking in the local woods. I spotted a male Scarlet Tanager (shown above) with the naked eye. I knew immediately what it was, but I noticed that, even if I didn't have a clue as to the identity of the bird, it would have still been a thrill to see. I will always enjoy the fun of identifying birds and the thrill of spotting a life lister bird for the first time, but I think for me it is the now the wonderful soul-touching beauty of birds that has come to wrap itself around all of the other layers.


  1. Three comments.
    1. Nicely written.
    2. UFO's: What's the big deal about UFO's (Unidentified Flying Objects)? Birders spend their lives looking for them, see hundreds of them every time they go out the door, manage to identify some of them, but many remain a UFO.
    3. Before I started birding in 1976 at age 30, there were only 5 species of birds in the world: Robin Red-breast, the Crow (which came in many sizes), the Duck, the Sea-gull and the Red-winged Blackbird. I started birding and now there are almost 10,000 species of birds in the world! I hope you appreciate my contribution to avian biodiversity.

  2. Very well put. It is indeed a multi-layered experience that becomes a never-ending cycle.

  3. I am working on some research into the bird market and this was a really interesting article thank you.

    Do you think this is a fair reflection of the market? Have I got the percentages right would you say?

    1. Beginner 30% - “what’s this bird” - as you say obssessed wtih the visual identification and in need of help from website forums or books.

    2. Garden birder 10% - “I love seeing birds on my bird table”
    Garden birders are casual, incidental bird watchers. They enjoy feeding and watching birds who visit their garden. They don't travel to see birds.

    3. Passionate – 30 % “Let’s see the migrating Swans coming into land” - a weekend birder who sometimes travels to see rarer birds.

    4.Obsessives 30% - “One thing that happens to you, you get to where you want to carry your binoculars everywhere.”
    They will travel to see new birds and to catch another glimpse of their favourite birds. They are also very keen on tracking the birds’ migratory patterns. There are also rarity bird seekers who want to hear about the latest sightings immediately and will then travel for long distances to locate a rare bird species. These are the most passionate of birders as they will keep lists of “observed birds”.



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