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.

  • Rarity has a temporal dimension, too. Anybody who’s ever begun work on a year list—let me guess, that’s more than a handful of the folks reading this right now—will know what I mean. The grackle or phoebe or catbird that barely elicits a glance in summer is a decidedly unexpected January addition to your year list.

  • Can we be honest about something?—Cape May is the most iconic birding hotspot in the ABA Area, perhaps the planet. As icons go, Cape May is right up there with Carnegie Hall and Yankee Stadium and the Owl Bar & Cafe.

  • There’s a saying, “in the catbird seat,” attributed to the 20th-century baseball broadcaster Red Barber, that contains a nice bit of basic bird biology. You see, catbirds like to have the upper hand. Catbirds like to know what’s going on. Catbirds like to be in control of the situation. They’re watching your every move from their redoubt in the thicket, You can’t even see the bird...

  • It is natural to romanticize about the good old days. “Walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways” is something I reveled in—and still revel in. Give me a proverbial “death march,” every time. My future me will thank my present me for the bragging rights. Perhaps there’s a twinge of regret, bordering on guilt, about how easy...

  • Don’t get tripped up on the supposed differences between the subjective experiences of hearing and seeing. We make sense of sound, largely without knowing we’re doing it, through the non-conscious process of something strikingly similar to spectrographic analysis. The spectrogram of that vireo’s song is absolutely a picture of the bird. It depicts a plumbeous vireo, not a gray vireo, because [...]

  • On the afternoon of my last day in Iowa, my companions kidnapped me and took me to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge east of Des Moines a little bit. We drove through cornfields to get there. When we got there, there were cornfields on one side of the road. On the other side of the road were...

  • The Olympic gull is compelling for scientists, not to mention just a cool bird overall, but it’s also a conundrum for birders. It is neither this species nor that species, so it doesn’t occupy an official slot in our checklists. On our day’s tally, the Olympic gull doesn’t earn a tick.

  • Sanderlings running after the waves are about as close to perfection as you’ll ever get in nature. Winter-plumage sanderlings doing so on a New York City beach in late December might, just might, be *the* ultimate attainment of perfection in this universe.

  • 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 . . .

  • 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.

  • ... but the most thrilling moment of that brilliant noon hour was when spotter Malia Defelice spoke aloud those blessèd words: Black-footed albatross!

  • We’re birding our way down a road known as El Trampolín del Diablo, The Devil’s Trampoline, because, when your vehicle goes off over the edge, you go boing! boing! boing! all the way down to the bottom.

  • 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...

  • Fair enough. Upland sandpipers *never* do the mudflats-and-sandbars thing. In Colorado, where I live, you look for them out in the sand sagebrush and blue grama, in the company of pronghorn and prairie-chickens.

  • It was a most satisfactory look at a most splendiferous bird, a lifer indeed for one member of our party. Let’s linger just a bit longer with this purple sandpiper on the famous jetty at Barnegat Light...

  • We were on foot, the two of us, and we had a ways to go. The plan was to reach the marine preserve at low tide. We picked up the pace, trying in vain to avoid encounters with the unavoidable coast cholla which proliferates here.

  • 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.

  • There’s a lot of talk these days, as well there should be, about inclusive language and messaging more generally, and that’s a start. But it’s not enough, not nearly enough.

  • My maternal grandfather died well before I was born, so all I got is stories. But stories can be powerful. Like this one: the story that my grandfather’s life would have been vastly different had he grown up with a Peterson field guide.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • While away a half hour with phalaropes and shovelers or whatever else you got at your local patch. You’ll surprise yourself. You might surprise all of us!

  • 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.

  • If there are “postage stamp preserves,” then this one, all of 72 acres, is a pixel of a preserve. Blink and you’ll miss it. Siri couldn’t get me there; she had me park halfway down a cul-de-sac, then walk through a yard with barking dogs.

  • The pandemic has highlighted what was until recently a consistently undervalued virtue of birding.

  • 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...

  • I had been upstairs on a sleepy Saturday morning, working on Birding magazine production, when there arose a tremendous clamor below. My kids had just rescued a northern saw-whet owl from the clutches of an outdoor cat.

  • What we absolutely need more of, not less of, in this society of ours is kids—kids who will become adults—who learn about gadwalls: how to recognize them; how to understand them; ultimately, how to care about them.

  • If you haven’t done a lot of birding this year, I don’t blame you. At the same time, if you’ve found solace in birds—even the most ordinary and workaday of birds—I’m right there with you.

  • 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.

  • Almost forty years ago, I saw and heard my first tufted titmouse, a little gray druid chanting in steady trimeter in a Beeler Street backyard. The experience of being there was wondrous.

  • It’s funny, anybody who goes hiking or walking or romancing in the foothills will hear that constant yappering, guaranteed, but I wonder how many will ever make conscious note of it. The birds are tiny, they stick to the crowns of the tall pondos, and they buzz about constantly.

  • The people keep a-comin’. They’re outside. The folks at the feeding station are masked and socially distanced. They’re learning about birds and nature. They’re wondering and sharing together about nature. They’re breathing fresh air...

  • Those lovely little birds at my local patch, those dainty white geese, brought together folks who likely would not otherwise have been thus assembled. The question on everyone’s mind that sunny Saturday afternoon: What are those birds? What are they named?

  • I don’t care who you are, or where you’re from, or whatever you believe in, but this I do know: Like me, you are incapable of being indifferent to the spectacle of cranes migrating ahead of an ice storm.

  • Something caught the corner of my eye, a shimmering amid the wooly clouds. Pelicans of course. I wheeled around for a full view...

  • eBird used to have a tagline, “It will change the way you bird,” that I wish they hadn’t discarded. Because eBird has drastically changed the way I bird. So much so, that I might venture: “It will kill the way you bird.”

  • When Bombycilla cedrorum was named the 2020 ABA Bird of the Year, there was delight and enchantment all across the ABA Area. Fists were pumped, shouts were proclaimed.

  • As of today, Tues., Sept. 8, 2020, I have submitted at least one complete eBird checklist per day every single day since Mon., Jan. 1, 2007, a run of 5,000 straight days. Why? How come? What has motivated me to do this?

  • We had a hankering to see Mississippi kites, the most summery of summer birds in Colorado. Kites like it hot: in the old towns along the Arkansas River well east of Pueblo, where cicadas drone from the tall shade trees.

  • I saw an American avocet, a presumed male by bill structure, thus less spectacular than the female. The bird was bleached and worn, but still: An avocet, any avocet, even a sun-blasted, straight-billed male, is the sort of bird that bids you stop.

  • I presented iNaturalist with my Hardscrabble Mountain gray flycatchers, and the app performed flawlessly. Not just the adults teed up in textbook fashion atop junipers; but also the fledglings, nearly featureless blobs of downy softness.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • One doesn’t ordinarily go to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch in search of workaday western kingbirds. No, the ranch is best known as a “vagrant trap,” a magnet for rarities. But I had a hankering this sunny Saturday afternoon for an encounter with a kingbird.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • This is a type 2 red crossbill because it sounds like one, looks like one, and acts like one. But check this out: We didn’t know any of that stuff when I started birding close to 40 years ago. Bird populations are changing, and so is our knowledge of bird populations.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • You heard it here first: Before too long, places like San Blas will be on the birding circuit. And sightings of birds like El Cacique will in some sense be routine.

  • Why do you go to birding? Is it to “chase” a rarity? To find one on your own? Is it for exercise? For contemplation? Is it to spend time with friends? To get away from it all? For science? For conservation?

  • One of the greatest things about being a birder (and, to be fair, a butterflyer or a botanizer or an astronomer) is that things like yellow-rumped warblers are even out there at all. A warbler of all things! In the dead of winter! In frigid Denver!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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:

  • The bird stood on the railing just beyond the high-rise hotel where I was staying. Moments earlier, a speedwalker had stopped for a moment to marvel with me at the beautiful beast. “We get a lot of those around here,” he informed me, sensing correctly that I wasn’t a local.

  • 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.

  • On a sunny afternoon a couple of weeks ago, we were at a truck stop on I-70 in eastern Colorado. It was a solid two hours from home, what with the Friday evening rush in the Denver metro region still to come.

  • On a not-exactly-a-bird-walk a week or so ago, one of the participants, Roberta, was intent on documenting whatever it is that was happening in the general vicinity of a pot full of patriotic petunias...

  • All by myself up there on the steep concrete berm above the low-flow canal, I couldn’t help myself: I pumped my fist into the air; I smiled widely and wildly; I exclaimed out loud, “That is the coolest bird in the world!”

  • 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.

  • Call me a late bloomer, but I can finally tell you that the experience of being in a gannet colony is overwhelming, a transcendence, an imponderable conjoining of sensory overload and perfect inner calm.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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...

  • Across a large swath of the ABA Area, it has been a remarkable spring for seeing western tanagers. These radiant birds have been showing up all across the western Great Lakes region, where they don’t ordinarily occur.

  • I had every intention of sleeping in. I’d flown in late the night before and had nothing planned for the morning. The Carolina wren had other plans.

  • Probably everybody knows what a hawk is. Hawks are big and fierce and raptorial; they have hooked beaks and gnarly talons. Like this...

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The time is 9:43 a.m., the temperature in the upper 20s. But “it’s a dry cold.” The sky is completely clear, the sun surprisingly warm. I’m at one of my favorite places on Earth, the entrance to The Nature Conservancy’s Medano-Zapata Ranch.

  • “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...

  • I’d arrived a bit early for the Saturday morning bird walk. What to do? Explore the parking lot of course. For one thing, parking lots are underrepresented in the eBird database.

  • Watching birds is a two-way street. We listen to a cardinal, we make a recording of the bird’s song, we upload the audio to eBird. But we also engage the whole experience with wonder and delight and curiosity.