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Bothering to learn the names of the birds in your outdoor world -- home and away


In college, I had an ornithology professor come into the first day of class lugging an armload of books and file folders. He was late and flopped the stack on top of the long desk at the front and the classroom and then proceeded to stare us, silent. He was a short man with a wild head of hair and an unlit pipe clenched between his teeth. The silence grew longer.

“Write this down and remember it,” he finally commanded. We all scrambled for notebooks and paper, and when the rustling silenced, he looked around the room at each of us.

“There are three types of birds,” he said solemnly. “Big brown birds, little brown birds, and seagulls. That’s all you need to know.”

He then stared across the room at everyone until we were all writing, and then he quickly gathered up his stack of books and paper and scurried out of the room. He was gone for about a minute and then reentered the room without books and paper chortling with laughter, amused at his joke. “Big brown birds, little brown birds, and seagulls: The average man’s bird identification guide.”

By the end of the semester, most of us were pretty darn competent at bird identification thanks to that professor and weekly field trips into the local chaparral, mountains, and deserts. He told us once that spending time outdoors without knowing the names of the birds around us was like going to a movie with a stranger repeatedly and never learning who they were or anything about them.

I still have many friends, avid outdoor types whether hunters, fishermen, hikers, or campers, who have not advanced very far past my professor’s opening day humor. For most people, there are sparrows (little brown birds), tweety birds (any little bird that doesn’t look quite like a sparrow), hawks (big brown birds), blue jays (obviously not a brown bird of any kind), cranes (anything with long legs), ducks (birds that quack), geese (big birds that honk), and those seagulls.

This is a pretty good start to rudimentary bird classification, but it’s still like going to work every day and never bothering to learn the name of coworkers.

Learning the names of birds, being able to identify their songs and calls, and something about where they live and migration habits makes the outdoor world an even bigger more incredible place.

I have been fascinated with mockingbirds since I was a kid and listened to them sing all night long in the spring and summer outside a bedroom window. The more I learned about them, the more I appreciated their ability to mimic other birds, use their white wing bars to flush insect prey, and their stubborn bravery in attacking hawks and cats several times their size to drive them away from nests (or just seemingly out of spite).

The fascination with birds has never ended, and for many years I have spread seeds in my yard to attract birds, especially in the late fall and winter. Most of the visitors to my yard are common birds I see every day, including the non-native English sparrows and House finches, the white-crowned sparrows, the old-looking, sad-faced California towhees, the wildly intelligent scrub jays, and the mockingbirds. But migration in the winter sends more birds into the yard, and I welcome seeing Oregon (now called dark-eyed) juncos and occasional lark sparrows. I love watching the black phoebes and kingbirds hunt flying insects in mid-air. There is a regular pair of kestrels hunting insects and lizards, mourning doves, and Eurasian collared doves bullying the other birds off the seeds. There is also a big female cooper’s hawk who will hunt all of the birds on my backyard list.

This time of year, the bird book and binoculars sit on the kitchen counter for those occasional migrants that drop in for a visit. They are both well-used over the years. The yellow-rumped warbles are not uncommon, but I had to look them up each time I spotted one for years before I had seen enough of them to recognize them instantly and remember their name. While the lesser goldfinch is the most common goldfinches visitor in the wild sunflowers I grow in the yard, I have also seen American and Lawrence’s goldfinches that you might miss if you didn’t grab the binoculars for a closer look. The goldfinches sometimes hang upside down eating the minute seeds out of the dried blossoms. They become the bright yellow patches of color on the sunflower’s dried stalks when the yellow blossoms have long disappeared. Color also comes to the neighborhood as the brilliant yellow and red western tanagers collect in the trees by the church behind my house each spring. I need to find out what attracts them to those particular trees, but I suspect it is the nectar from the blossoms on the tree. Then there are the nearly invisible, tiny gnatcatchers. Occasionally, a flock of these birds bug-hunts their way across my yard, never lingering long enough or holding still enough for me to really tell which species I’ve just seen, even in 10-power binoculars.

With Christmas just around the corner and the migrants in my yard, I realized that my bird books have mostly been Christmas gifts from family and friends who knew how important it is to know the names of birds we see. The books go everywhere with me when I’m outdoors, but they are probably thumbed more here at home. I like the Sibley bird books, but there are a bunch of cool ones out there and I have a number of different books. My youngest son uses a bird-ID app on his phone, but I frequently travel where I don’t have cell service. Or that’s the excuse I use. The truth is that I’m getting old and prefer books. Bird book or bird identification application, they are great presents.

The coolest bird I’ve ever seen in my yard was an Inca dove with its scale-patterned feathers over most of its body. The small dove was in the yard one stormy winter’s day a number of years ago, well north of its normal home range. It seems like it would have been a crime not to know the name of this visitor to my home and simply not give another glance to just another little brown bird.


Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.

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