How to Know the Birds by Ted Floyd2019-12-18T12:22:47-05:00

Become a better birder with brief portraits of North American birds. These friendly, relatable essays are a celebration of the art, science, and delights of birding.

How to Know the Birds—also a new hardcover, from National Geographic Books (with a whole different collection of essays)—introduces a holistic approach to birding, by noting how behaviors, settings, and seasonal cycles connect with shape, song, color, gender, age distinctions, and other features traditionally used to identify species. Birding editor and author Ted Floyd guides us through a year of becoming a better birder, each species representing another useful lesson: from explaining scientific nomenclature to noting how plumage changes with age, from chronicling migration patterns to noting hatchling habits.

How to Know the Birds: No. 72, Layover Birding

By |January 17th, 2023|

Even when everything goes smoothly, airport layovers are an “exercise” in sedentariness. Which isn’t to say birdlessness. On the contrary, airport layovers sometimes result in life birds; that’s happened to me more than once. For those of us on eBird consecutive days streaks, airport layovers . . .

How to Know the Birds: No. 71, “SKUA!”

By |December 20th, 2022|

The subantarctic skuas of South Georgia aren’t the star attraction of that fabled wildlife-watching destination in the Southern Ocean. That title is shared equally among, I would say, the king penguins, South Georgia pipits, and southern elephant seals that call South Georgia home. No, the skuas don’t get a piece of the pie of that three-way tie. But I think they were my favorite vertebrates on South Georgia.

How to Know the Birds: No. 68, SY AMRE–ATS

By |July 26th, 2022|

I knowingly saw my first American Redstart 40 years ago this summer. The bird was not a full-on adult male, splendiferously black-and-blaze-orange. It was more muted, light gray with lemon-yellow highlights...

How to Know the Birds: No. 64, Spark Bird

By |December 21st, 2021|

One moment, you’re a pitiable non-birder, toiling pointlessly in law or finance or medicine, the next, you’re a full-on, full-fledged, born-again, never-look-back-again, lifelong birder. That’s a caricature, but only up to a point.

How to Know the Birds: No. 61, The End of Birding

By |June 1st, 2021|

The cactus wren, unlike so many other birds, is the same species now as when I first laid eyes on one 30 years ago. It has the same scientific name and the same standard English name. It’s still a passerine, and still a wren, still in pretty much the same place in the field guide. It sings the same song, wears the same plumage, and haunts the same habitats.

How to Know the Birds: No. 60, Snowy Egret, Seen Only

By |May 18th, 2021|

I didn’t consciously note it at the time, but May 15, 2021, was the start of my 20th year of employment at the American Birding Association. No, it doesn’t “feel like yesterday.” It feels like 19 long years since May 15, 2002, and I mean that in the best way possible.

How to Know the Birds: No. 58, ¡Piñoneros!

By |April 20th, 2021|

It is useful to establish a universal nomenclature for the various species of jays—and everything else that crawls, slithers, sprouts, and flies on this Earth. That’s why we have official scientific names in the culturally neutral dead language of Latin.

How to Know the Birds: No. 55, LOS HALH–LOL

By |March 9th, 2021|

March comes in like a lion, it is said, and nowhere is that truer perhaps than at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills where I live. A full-on pride of lions, many a March. But not in 2021. It had been pleasant, even up in the high mountains...

How to Know the Birds: No. 51, The Impossible Raven

By |January 12th, 2021|

After a morning of soaking wet sneakers and fogged lenses and warblersong tinnitus, we finally found them: ravens, an apparent family group, croaking prehistorically and flapping their wings so mightily that I could see eddies of mist in their wake.

How to Know the Birds: No. 38, The Exemplary Cormorant

By |July 14th, 2020|

The second half of 2020 is going to be difficult, and I have no intention of downplaying or dismissing that reality. But I wonder if something quietly wondrous is beginning to happen: an awakening of community, of shared responsibility, of devotion to a cause greater than ourselves.

How to Know the Birds: No. 37, Two Truths About Birding

By |June 30th, 2020|

Seeing the bird was bittersweet for me. Sweet: What’s not to like about seeing a rock wren, indeed seeing and hearing and experiencing an entire landscape come alive with these blithe, brown birds? Bitter: I wish I’d been there with my friends from Camp Colorado, understandably canceled out of concern for the health of would-be campers and the broader community.

How to Know the Birds: No. 36, The Last Grasshopper Sparrow

By |June 16th, 2020|

The bird was a grasshopper sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum, singing, as grasshopper sparrows are wont to do, in the middle of the night. The time was 12:26 am. The full moon peeked through the haze and persistent cloud cover, but it was to be of no use in actually seeing the sparrow. Which was the whole point of this exercise. My companion and I had come to this place specifically to hear the unseen bird.

How to Know the Birds: No. 34, Culture Shock and a Stealth Success Story

By |May 19th, 2020|

If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of the coronavirus, it’s that so many people are noticing birds for the first time. Even in this era of social distancing, people are also noticing other birders and engaging the broader birding community. Some of them will find their way to the ABA. But even those who do not will, at least to some degree, find themselves within the ABA’s sphere of influence.

How to Know the Birds: No. 33, Thirty Intense Seconds with an Extreme Robin

By |May 5th, 2020|

I miss the spring bird festivals and road trips to vagrant traps, but I’m also enjoying Q. T. with common birds as never before. It can be hard to stay sane and centered in these trying times, and I don’t mean to minimize that reality; but it is also gratifying that, even though we cannot go far away to see them right now, birds are more comforting and more wonderful than ever.

How to Know the Birds: No. 32, My Favorite Bird, the Bushtit

By |April 21st, 2020|

We had an ice storm earlier in the month, as good an excuse as any to go out for a bit of birding. Camera?–check. Sanitizer?–check. Mask?–check. I saw a birding friend out there, Vasu, and we struck up a conversation—from a distance of well over six feet. The new normal.

How to Know the Birds: No. 31, Social Distancing with a Shelter-in-Place Solitaire

By |April 7th, 2020|

True to form, the backyard solitaire is, well, solitary. This is a species that had the social distancing thing perfected long before social distancing was a human thing. Prediction: The Merriam–Webster Word of the Year for 2020 is going to be "social distancing." Either that or "shelter in place." That’s another behavior our backyard solitaire has down.

How to Know the Birds: No. 29, Mind of the Magpie

By |March 10th, 2020|

I’ve encountered an awful lot of black-billed magpies in my life, and, truth be told, I rarely if ever encounter the “perfect” bird. That’s because magpies are far too busy being admirably, absorbingly, utterly fascinating. Spend an hour with a pair of magpies, as I did late last month, and you will come away from the experience amazed and humbled.

How to Know the Birds: No. 28, A Prairie Falcon for the Twenties

By |February 25th, 2020|

Birding together has always been about learning and discovery, and it always shall be. There is something wonderfully nerdy about birding, and I make no apologies for that. But birding in the decade ahead is destined to be embraced more fully as a force for good—good for our bodies, good for our minds, good for humanity.

How to Know the Birds: No. 24, The Owl of the Decade

By |December 31st, 2019|

The great horned owl is the most widespread and, you might say, the most ordinary owl in the ABA Area. But here’s the deal. Tweet a 7-second video of B. virginianus, and the entire twitterverse takes note. Not all that long ago, we birders were just a tad embarrassed by the star power of owls.

How to Know the Birds: No. 23, Parakeet Possessions

By |December 17th, 2019|

The parakeets own this place. They shriek and squeak and squawk like nobody’s business. They’re green, for crying out loud. Like Huckleberry Finn, that most exemplary and free-spirited of Americans, they come and go as they please. The Monk Parakeets are Brooklyn originals, born and bred in Green-Wood Cemetery, native New Yorkers to the core.

How to Know the Birds: No. 22, The Common Kiskadee

By |December 3rd, 2019|

Without giving it too much thought, What are some of the great places in the ABA Area? Alaska and Hawaii, for starters. The Chiricahuas, the Salton Sea, and the Everglades, needless to say. Cape May and Central Park and Montrose Point, of course. But I want to make a special shoutout here to South Texas, and to the lower Rio Grande valley in particular.

How to Know the Birds: No. 21, Hawaii’s Most Perfect Bird

By |November 19th, 2019|

As I watched the snoozing tattler, I gave thought again to the matter of belonging—to the conundrum of a bird that “belongs” to salt spray and sea rocks in the tropics, but also to remote and rugged mountains in the arctic, to lonely expanses of open ocean, to homeless encampments along a multi-use trail, to the glitz and glitter of the big city.

How to Know the Birds: No. 20, Alien Fairies in the Big City

By |November 5th, 2019|

Before we proceed any further, let’s play a little game. Let’s pretend we don’t know where we are. We scan around for clues and we see: Rush hour traffic—check. Pedestrians—check. Palm trees—check. Tall buildings—check. So far, so good. We’re plausibly in any one of those five densely populated cities. Now take a look directly overhead:

How to Know the Birds: No. 18, Flickers in the Flick of a Tongue

By |October 8th, 2019|

At my daughter’s soccer practice the other day, I saw an adult male Red-shafted Flicker. Pretty typical for this kind of woodpecker—feeding on the ground. Hm. If you calculated a time budget for the bird, I’m pretty sure you’d find that it spends more time feeding on lawns and in meadows than pecking on limbs and boughs.

How to Know the Birds: No. 14, Q. T. with a Great Blue

By |August 13th, 2019|

Hoooooookay. Reminds me of a visit, not so long ago, to Philadelphia, when I saw this dude near the art museum selling fake Rolexes. I also recall the time some friends and I had a full-on encounter with a full-frontal flasher in the Boston suburbs.

How to Know the Birds: No. 12, Merganser Musings

By |July 16th, 2019|

The adult male, or “drake,” hooded merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus, has got to be just about the most ridiculously photogenic bird in the ABA Area. No matter how often I see one—the species has been expanding its range and increasing in number for several decades now—I can’t help myself. I have to take a picture.

How to Know the Birds: No. 11, Beware Expectation

By |July 2nd, 2019|

I was leading a field trip a couple weeks ago, and our group came across this bird. One of the trip participants needed Hammond’s flycatcher for his county list, and we were at a good elevation—and a good part of the state—for that long-winged, small-billed, and generally dumpy empid. Was it a Hammond’s?

How to Know the Birds: No. 10, Dvořák’s Vireo

By |June 18th, 2019|

A few years ago, I was, for whatever reason, studying the score of the scherzo of Dvořák’s quartet, and it struck me that the celebrated “tanager” passage, measures 21–24, is an absolutely terrible transcription of Piranga olivacea, the scarlet tanager. However, it provides an eerily close match to an utterly different-looking bird species...

How to Know the Birds: No. 6, Smartphone Meadowlarks

By |April 23rd, 2019|

The dawn chorus on a bright June morning in the foothills of the Appalachians… southbound Sandhill Cranes bugling against a gray sky over the shortgrass prairie… the desert come alive with thrasher song on a still afternoon in late winter… Everywhere in the ABA Area we delight in birdsong.

How to Know the Birds: No. 5, Why Do Shovelers Spin?

By |April 9th, 2019|

Birds do things. Northern cardinals embellish their songs with squirrel-like chatter; American crows patrol parking lots in their quest for whiskey; sagebrush sparrows flip their long tails expressively, as if they were tiny roadrunners; and American dippers do it all.

How to Know the Birds: No. 3, Watching Dippers in the Age of #SciComm

By |March 12th, 2019|

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and I think that applies as well to the present age as any other. While Nick and I were birding Boulder Creek, we got to talking, as birders so often do, about the cavalcade of environmental threats facing birds and humanity today. The world was safer and greener in 1991...


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