There are more 650 species of birds that are described in “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America”, and, according to the Audubon Society, 368 of those species have been found in Westchester County.
By Paul Hicks
There are more 650 species of birds that are described in “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America”, and, according to the Audubon Society, 368 of those species have been found in Westchester County. If you are a beginning birder, — or thinking about becoming one — it is helpful to make the process of identification as simple as possible. A good way to start (assuming you have some decent binoculars) is to buy David Sibley’s excellent guide, which covers all the states east of the Rocky Mountains.
At the back of the guide book there is a “Quick Index” that lists the most common species of birds alphabetically. A useful way to identify birds and distinguish one species from another can often be found in the bird’s name itself. For example, the name may highlight some part of the plumage color (Yellow-rumped Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker), overall coloring (Indigo Bunting and Tricolored Heron) or other distinctive features (Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Ring-necked Pheasant).
There may be a clue about the bird’s size (Least Tern, Giant Kiskadee), favorite nesting site (House Wren, Barn Swallow), food (Grasshopper Sparrow, Worm-eating Warbler) or habitat (Marsh Sparrow, Pine Siskin). Sometimes the bird’s well-known behavior says it all (Roadrunner, Mockingbird) Identifying features in the name can be confusing, however, if they describe only one sex, such as the Red-winged Blackbird: the male is black with red epaulettes, but the female looks like a large brownish sparrow. Seasonal as well as color differences can also throw you off: the female Goldfinch is yellow-brown rather than gold throughout the year, and so is the male in its winter plumage.
Using your ears as well as eyes will greatly increase your ability to identify and remember the names of many birds. First, there are the ones that appear to say their own names. In your back yard you are likely to hear the Black-capped Chickadee singing chickadee-dee-dee and the Blue Jay calling jay! jay! Near the shore there are Kildeers, a type of Plover that like to nest in rocky places (even gravel parking lots) and repeatedly pipe killdeer, killdeer.
Out in the woods, you may hear the plaintive song (pee-a, peea-wee) of the Eastern Wood-Peewee, which can be easily distinguished from the raspy phee-bee, sung by the Eastern Phoebe. Deeper in the woods, if you are lucky, you might hear the song of the thrush called a Veery, whose song, according to David Sibley, is a “smooth, rolling spiraling vrdi vrreed vreed vreer vreer with an ethereal fluting quality and descending in two stages.”
Some birds that prefer to live in edge habitats between woods and fields are more often heard than seen. The best known is probably the Northern Bobwhite Quail, whose distinctive whistle is heard as bob-white, bob-bob-white. Almost as familiar is the Whippoorwill, which delivers its namesake song mostly at dawn and dusk: whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.
In addition to the birds that name themselves (more or less) are species whose songs have been traditionally translated phonetically into useful mnemonics. One of the most familiar is the White-throated Sparrow, which is thought to be singing Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody (Canadians think it is saying Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada).
Other backyard favorites are the Northern Cardinal (birdy, birdy, birdy), Tufted Titmouse (Peter, Peter, Peter), and Carolina Wren (teakettle, teakettle, teakettle). The Mourning Dove is so-named because of its sorrowful sounding coos while the large repertoire of the Catbird includes an occasional meow.
Further afield listen for the Common Yellowthroat (witchety, witchety, witchety) on the woodland edges while in the woods you may hear an Eastern Towhee (drink your tea) or an ovenbird (teacher, teacher, teacher).
All this information about bird names and sounds will make more sense when you have the Merlin Bird ID app, available free from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you see or hear bird that sounds like it is meowing, type in catbird on Merlin and you can confirm both its appearance and its call. Soon you will be able to move from beginner to intermediate birder status.
Pictured above: 1. Indigo Bunting; 2. Male Red-winged Blackbird; 3. Female Red-winged Blackbird; 4. A pair of Bobwhites; 5. Killdeer; 6. Common Yellowthroat
—Photos by Jay Mahoney