Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Part Two

In Part One we discussed how bird field guides traditionally have been arranged in taxonomic order--birds are ordered by presumed relationships, even if they don't necessarily look much alike. This order changes as scientists discover new relationships. Thus, the order birds appear in bird books constantly changes.

Veteran bird watchers memorize the taxonomic ordering of birds and keep up with the annual changes. But for beginners this just doesn't make sense.

In the "How to Identify Birds" section of his 1980 A Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson identified "Eight main visual categories" to separate birds. These categories were:
Long-legged waders
Smaller waders
Birds of prey
Non-passerine land birds
Passerine (perching) birds

An article in Birding magazine in November 2009 basically repeated Peterson's list as a proposed "field-friendly sequence" (The Purpose of Field Guides: Taxonomy vs. Utility? Birding 41(6):44-49, November 2009 by Steve N.G. Howell, Michael O'Brien, Brian L. Sullivan, Christopher L. Wood, Ian Lewington, and Richard Crossley). Richard Crossley used this sequence in his 2011 bird book, The Crossley ID Guide.

The shortfall of the sequence above is that half the birds in the world are Passerines. The proposed sequence does a decent job of categorizing half the birds--the non-Passerines--but doesn't really help with our familiar backyard birds.

Two other bird books took up the challenge of categorizing the Passerines. The 1997 book by Jack L. Griggs, All the Birds of North America, divided up the Passerines based on bill size and shape. It was an interesting concept, but a little complicated. Kenn Kaufman's 2000 Birds of North America did a better job, I think.

Kaufman had the basic categories of Peterson: Aerial waterbirds, Swimming waterbirds, Waders, Fowl, and Raptors. Then he used the following sequence:
Medium-sized Land Birds
Hummingbirds, Swifts, and Swallows
Typical Songbirds
Tanagers and Blackbirds
Finches and Buntings

Of course, there are always some birds that don't seem to fit neatly. I thought Kaufman's "Typical Songbirds" category included too many different-appearing birds. I also felt that most beginners (those for whom this sequence would be most beneficial) could not tell many streaky female finches and buntings from streaked sparrows.

So I propose the following sequence of categories of North American birds:
Swimming Waterbirds
Flying Waterbirds
Wading Waterbirds
Chicken-like Birds
Miscellaneous Landbirds
Aerial Landbirds
Flycatcher-like Birds
Thrush-like Songbirds
Chickadee and Wren-like Songbirds
Warbler-like Songbirds
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds
Blackbird-like Songbirds

A beginner should be able to quickly place a bird they see into one of these categories, and more quickly identify an unknown bird.

Future posts will discuss each category individually.


  1. Hello
    I live in the Vancouver BC area and have a jungle-garden with many large specimens, and lots of birds like to come to drink or perch in the cherry tree or eat the berries on the shrubs.

    I have just had a visit in my garden from two extraordinary birds. If anyone could suggest what this pair might be, I would be pleased.

    The mystery birds are a bit bigger than the robins that come here. Their size is more like the blue jays that I see. The mystery birds have well defined tail feathers that are brown-gray with bright orange on the underneath side. The main back part of the bird is a checkered pattern of white and brown-gray - very sharp and crisp. The bird has a bright red small mark on both sides of its head, right next to the eyes. The bird also has a bright orange throat. I don't recall the color of the breast. I was mesmerized by the bright orange markings and the checkered back.

    I have no experience at all in identifying birds, but am getting interested.

    1. Dear "Interested in Vancouver,"

      The species that gets you interested in birds is often called a "spark bird." Yours is Northern Flicker, formerly called Red-shafted Flicker, a type of ant-eating, ground-dwelling, woodpecker.

      More about Northern Flicker here.

    2. Thank you so much Greg. I hope you don't mind if I ask about another bird.

      Yesterday, a swarm of tiny birds came to eat the black aphids on a wild dogwood bush. These little birds are just a wee bit bigger than the hummingbirds I see around here. Some of them were all grey in various shades, and others had black and white markings. I wonder if the all gray ones were the females and the ones with the markings were the males.

      Your kind help is much appreciated.

      Mary Lou (formerly "Interested in Vancouver")

    3. Mary Lou,

      Your gray birds are Bushtits (see: In the Backyard... Bushtit). The black-and-white birds may be Black-capped Chickadees.

  2. Greg, this morning I saw a bird on my suburban (Oregon City) backyard feeder (of black sunflower seed) that was large (a bit bigger than a robin but not quite as big as a flicker). The upper parts were brown with no particular marking. The underside was buff or cream. The underside of it's long tail was speckled with brown or black. The most distinctive thing was a rosy patch on it's buff colored throat. As it flew away it appeared to have rusty color under it's wings. I have never seen anything like it before and cannot find it in any of my bird books. Do you have any idea what it might have been?

    1. You, know, Mourning Doves have an iridescent pinkish patch on the side of the neck that sometimes shows up in sun. Not very obvious usually. If this isn't it, I'm stumped!

  3. It was not a dove, I'm sure of that. The shape was like a Robin (but larger) and the tail was long, but not excessively. I plowed through all the bird books I have at home and couldn't find anything close. Wondered whether it was winter plumage or a female or a bird that is not usually found in Oregon. I can't describe the beak (exa grosbeak or like a thrush) because I was so focused on the pink throat patch and spotted underside of the tail. If I see it again I will try to get a picture. Thank you so much for your reply! Holly

  4. After looking at information online about Red Shafted Flickers and Gilded Flickers (and how they can interbreed) my best guess would be that this was a female hybrid of the two (maybe a juvenile). On a web site called "What Bird.com" there is a picture of a female gilded flicker. The bird I saw looked a lot like this but had no black chest crescent. Instead there was a rosy patch (not a defined mark) on her throat/upper chest. Maybe one of these days she will return to my yard and I will be ready with a camera! Thanks again for your help Greg. I love all of your pictures. Holly