If you’ve ever read about how to improve your identification skills, you have undoubtedly run across these suggestions: Continue watching after you’ve identified the bird. Leave your field guide at home. Take notes or draw sketches. Get to know common birds.
The suggestions are all related. Their ultimate goal is to increase your engagement, focus your attention, and encourage you to look more carefully, so that you see (and remember) more details. My hunch, however, is that they are either too vague (“get to know common birds”) or too ambitious (“draw sketches”), and most birders probably never even get started.
I believe one simple habit can help focus your attention, help you learn common birds, and increase both your expertise and your enjoyment, and that’s to be an active observer: look at details and ask questions. I don’t mean big, unanswerable questions such as “Why are cardinals red?” I mean little, in-the-moment questions such as “How does a perched cardinal hold its tail?”
In a recent psychology experiment, two groups of students were sent to an art museum. Members of the first group were asked to photograph any piece they liked, while students in the second were instructed to pick one detail of an artwork and photograph that. Afterward, members of the first group had little memory of the art they had photographed, while students in the second group remembered not just the details but the rest of the work as well.
This suggests that making an effort to study one detail of a bird — any detail — will enhance your awareness and memory of the whole bird. You could ask simple questions such as “What part of the bird is the brightest color?” or a more advanced question: “What color are the scapulars?” You could set a goal for a day’s birding — to take note of bill colors or the lengths of legs on a variety of species, for example, or to study tail movements or look for wingbars. The possibilities for questions are endless.
I do a lot of sketching and note taking, and writing things down certainly helps, but feel free to carry a field guide and take photographs, if you like. The most important part of the experience is looking carefully. By noticing a detail on each bird, you will get to know them all.
This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of BirdWatching.