Monday, July 8, 2019

What birds are in my backyard?

"What bird is that?"

You've noticed some unusual bird behavior that you wondered about. Or, you've seen a strikingly patterned or colorful bird that got your attention. Perhaps you were awakened by the beautiful melody of songbirds in spring. Maybe you set up a bird feeder just to enjoy the birds. You didn't care what they were. But now something's changed. You're curious. You asked: "What bird is that?" and, in fact, "what are the other birds in my backyard?"

Photo of Western Tanager
This is a bird people tell me about a lot during spring migration--
Western Tanager. Photo by Greg Gillson.
Welcome!

The purpose of this website is to help you identify, learn about, and attract birds to your backyard, if that is your desire. I'm coming at this from the perspective of the United States. But no matter where you live you can apply the principles found here, even if the names of the birds are different where you live.

My name is Greg. I've been birding since November 1972. Now, many people come to bird watching gradually, so they can't really say when they started. But I was in the 8th grade and needed a science project. We were in the midst of one of those once-in-20-year snow storms that western Oregon gets sometimes--a period of a week or so where the snow actually sticks on the ground for more than 3 hours. My father said, "Why don't you keep track of the birds that come to your mother's feeder?"

Life. Changing. Words.

So I did. I used my dad's old binoculars and his Field Guide to Eastern Birds, and began tracking birds in my yard. I misidentified plenty of birds that first month or so, especially until I was able to purchase a Field Guide to Western Birds, and better identify what I was seeing. I don't remember what grade I got on the science project--it doesn't matter. My world changed.

It wasn't long before I was having my dad drive me to local wildlife refuges. We were an outdoors family, so I had plenty of opportunity to watch birds during camping and fishing trips to the mountains, desert, and coast. I was an avid fisher as a youth. Once I discovered birds, however, I never fished again. And, because I started birding as a science project, my focus was on identification, status, and distribution. I didn't spend much time actually watching backyard birds until I was married. More often, it was my wife, Marlene, who set up the feeders. And I was driving my children around Oregon, camping and showing them the birds, though they weren't "infected" with the birding bug, as was I.

While my vocation became electronics repair and testing, I actually ran a part-time tour company looking for seabirds by boat off Oregon for 20 years. I had the joy of showing albatrosses to about 3000 people! I also had a part time job teaching bird watching classes after the electronics industry waned with the housing crisis of 2008.

I've been photographing birds from the very beginning. My first attempts were with a point and shoot camera. But I've been using modern DLSR's with a 100-400mm lens for more than a decade now. You'll notice many of my bird photos sprinkled about on these pages.

And Marlene and I moved to San Diego in 2013. From rain forest to desert. I'm loving it!

But you didn't come to this page for me. You came because you wanted to know about birds in your backyard. I just wanted to let you know that you have reached someone who is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about birds and bird watching. Thanks for being here.

But exactly what are you interested in? Do you want to just know what a couple of the birds in your yard are? Or do you want to know all of them like I did? Are you content to watch the birds just in your neighborhood? Or do you want to explore father afield? Are you looking to begin your journey as a bird watcher? I can help.

Identification

The first thing you learn about a person is their name. Everything else follows from that. It is the same for birds. Once you learn a bird's name you'll begin to relate that name to how it looks--its shape and colors, how it behaves, how it sounds, what habitats it prefers, what niche it lives in, what it eats, where it places its nest. You begin to actually know that species.

Then you'll find there are groups of similar birds with similar names. You'll learn Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Barn Swallow, and that these are dissimilar from birds named woodpeckers or ducks or sparrows.

You'll find you already know many types of birds. Probably more than you think. Swan, duck, pelican, heron, turkey, hawk, woodpecker, dove, crow, chickadee, robin, cardinal, goldfinch. That's a good start. There are a few more major divisions. Then it's just a matter of different kinds of ducks, different kinds of chickadees, different kinds of herons. It's as easy or as difficult as you want. You decide how involved you want to be.

But the best first place to start identifying birds is in your own backyard.

Photo of Northern Flicker
"What is it?" Northern Flicker is the bird I get asked about the most.
A ground-feeding woodpecker that loves ants!
Northern Flicker. Photo by Greg Gillson
Backyard birds

There are nearly 1000 species of birds that have been recorded in North America north of Mexico. And there are nearly 10,000 species of birds in the world.

Birds in the backyard, though are a bit more restricted in number, even across such a large country as the United States. You'll find that many backyard birds are the same from New York to Los Angeles, Miami to Seattle. Of course, many are different.

Backyard birds include those are habituated to humans and their cities. Others are only found in backyards on the edges of more wild areas, where the native habitats and the edges of town meet. Many birds migrate from more tropical areas in the spring to breed in northern forests and tundra where summer days are long. Often small songbirds migrate at night. They may descend into your backyard at dawn to seek shelter, food, and water. Then, they continue on the next night. Of course, some of those migrants may instead be stopping to build nests in your yard for the summer.

The most widespread backyard bird in North America is the Mourning Dove. I remember hearing the mournful cooing of this species as a child in Minnesota, years before I truly began watching birds. They can be found coast-to-coast from southern Canada south to Panama. And they are found in farmlands, woods, deserts, and towns. Red-winged Blackbird has a similar range, though more restricted to wetlands in summer, and farmlands and towns in winter. It is in winter when Red-winged Blackbirds are more likely to visit your backyard feeder. American Robins are migratory, pulling out of the far north in winter. But again, they are found from coast-to-coast.


What birds are in your state?
See the Article Index for birds by location


In the East, the Northern Cardinal is found in most backyards. In the West, House Finches are ubiquitous. And two species introduced from Europe are found in the most densely populated parts of our cities--European Starlings and House Sparrows.

They'll be a dozen common birds in your backyard. Then they'll be another dozen that will be less regular. And then, flying over or heard in neighboring wild areas, but seen or heard from your yard, may be dozens more. Many bird watchers have their "yard list" with 50 to 75 species!

Attracting birds to your yard

Many people enjoy setting up bird feeders and feeding birds in the yard. Common bird foods include seeds, suet, peanuts, fruits, grubs, and nectar. Yet providing food in a feeder is only one way to attract birds. Once you have some birds eating in your yard, they will attract others!

Birds can also be attracted by plants. This includes fruit-bearing trees or bushes that provide food, but also flowering plants with nectar upon which some birds feed, or that attract insects on which some birds feed. Plants are good for more than food. They provide a hiding place for birds--a place to rest. Shelter. They provide concealment in which to place their nest.

If a tree has a dead limb, woodpeckers may excavate a nest cavity one year, and this will be a nesting site for wrens, swallows, bluebirds, nuthatches and others for several years afterward. Well-cared for bird houses can take the place of a tree cavity. And by building different-sized entry holes, different kinds of birds will choose the nest box.

All birds need water for drinking and bathing. Clean bird baths or shallow fountains can really attract birds--even without setting up any bird feeders.

Photo of White-crowned Sparrow taking a bath
Just add water!
A White-crowned sparrow takes a bath.
Marlene used my camera to take this photo!
Bird Watching

Millions of people that started out just feeding and watching birds (bird watchers) became full-fledged birdwatchers, or birders. In the past "birders" and "birding" were terms defining those who concentrated on identification and seeking out birds they'd never seen before. But birder, birdwatcher, and bird watcher are really interchangeable, and not too many people get ruffled feathers about which term describes them. Okay, enough puns.

Now that you've asked: "What bird is that?" you have started a journey of knowledge and joy. It's just the first step of what may be a lifetime avocation. A hobby. A community of like-minded people. Or, if you're not careful, some may call it an obsession. There are worse things.

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I'd love to hear from you. What did you think? Is something missing? What else would you like to see in a future article? Comments are moderated to eliminate spam; thanks for understanding that I may not be able to get back to you right away. --Greg--

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