I enjoy watching birds. Their beautiful colors are pleasing to watch. Their melodious songs are a delight for the ears. Previously, I thought you needed a wooded yard or a park to observe birds, but God has shown me wonderful bird nature study in so many different environments.
Some examples of bird nature study I have observed are:
- ducks and geese at the neighborhood pond or local park
- brilliant red cardinals feasting on berries of snow-covered holly bushes outside the window of a very urban home
- robins, chickadees, and mourning doves feasting at the bird feeder in the backyard of our suburban home
- hawks standing ready to pounce on prey along the sides of the highway
- turkeys pecking on the door of a country home
Regardless of your home environment, birds abound to study.
Why should we study birds?
The first and foremost reason we should study birds is the reason we study any aspect of nature—to become more intimate with God’s creation and marvel at His handiwork. Birds, like every other creature, were uniquely designed.
In Handbook of Nature Study, Anna Botsford Comstock tells us that to know the habits of birds is the “ambition of the true ornithologist.” She goes on to say that even someone just beginning his study of birds should have the same ambition.
What is the value of birds?
Birds have many purposes including:
- bringing cheer through their beautiful colors and songs
- eating many insects
- hawks and owls keep the number of small pests lower
- scavengers complete the circle of life
Seven key features to study about birds
I thought that knowing the name of the bird and its song was the aim of bird nature study. Ms. Comstock tells us that identifying the bird is just the first step. Identifying the bird will allow us to learn the habits and features of that particular type of bird.
1. Feathers as clothing
Feathers help protect birds from rain, snow, wind, and cold. Different types of feathers have different purposes.
The feathers on the back act as a raincoat, allowing rain to roll off. They overlap, acting as shingles.
Fluffier feathers on the chest act as an overcoat. Down is a feather with no quill.
3 parts of a feather
- Shaft or quill is the stiff, central stem.
- Barbs near the end of the feather join in a smooth webbing.
- Barbs near the base are fluffier and downy.
Oil glands are located on the back at the base of the tail feather. A bird preens itself by gathering some oil and spreading it over its feathers as a waterproof coating. This video explains why and how birds preen themselves and each other.
2. Feathers as ornaments
Male birds usually have brightly colored feathers and some have crowns or tufts as well. Their bright colors attract female birds. Males also use their bright colors to distract attention from the nesting female.
Female birds on the other hand usually are not brightly colored. They usually blend in with their nest to protect themselves and their young.
Adolescent birds typically have the same coloring as the mother to protect them as they grow. Once they reach maturity, male birds will have the usual bright colors. The pictures below of peacocks and turkeys illustrate these color differences.
3. How Birds Fly
Birds fly by pressing down on the air with their wings. They spread their tail feathers during flight and use them like a ship’s rudder. This video provides a nice demonstration.
The bird that wins the farthest migration award is the Arctic Tern. It migrates from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica!
Most migratory birds have established migration routes that are followed for generations, only changing when food is scarce on the original route. Males may arrive two weeks before females.
Not all birds migrate. Some are permanent residents such as chickadees, jays, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. Because they eat insects and small berries, they can continue to find food throughout the winter months.
4. Eyes and Ears
Birds’ eyes and ears are very different from ours. Their eyesight is more keen with their eyes on the sides of their head. This allows them to see their whole environment at once, which is key for their safety. Birds also have acute hearing. Interestingly, their ears are often simply holes in the sides of their head.
Beaks have many purposes and are different for every species of bird. Some beaks are hard, sharp, and pointed while others are softer, flat, and broad. Each is uniquely suited to the bird’s habitat and needs. The purposes of the beak include:
- obtaining food
- cleaning and oiling feathers
- assisting in making a nest
- turning eggs during nesting
The purpose of a bird’s feet are obtaining food and moving about. Birds have three toes pointing to the front and one toe pointing toward the back. Some have webbing between the toes to assist while paddling in the water and to provide a broader surface to prevent sinking in mud.
Listening to a bird’s song is one of the most enjoyable things to do on a beautiful spring morning. Some birds are even named after the song they sing, such as the bobwhite or the whippoorwill. Typically, only male birds sing. Their favorite time to sing is early morning in the spring and early summer months.
Have you tried playing a bird call from your porch? Using the iBird app, we have played various bird calls and had birds reply. This is a great way to learn the calls and identify the birds. (Several other apps are also available. See suggested resources below for details.) The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also has great resources and bird calls online.
How to attract birds to your yard
Observing birds from your own home is a wonderful way to become familiar with them. You can become familiar with birds by observing their habits throughout the day and seasons. The most logical time to set up a bird feeder is in the winter months when food is more scarce, but Ms. Comstock reminds us that the best time is whenever one is really interested.
So regardless of the season, set up a bird feeder. In the spring you could set up nesting boxes or set out nesting materials. In the summer, they also appreciate some water to drink and in which to bathe.
Great Backyard Bird Count
You can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count and help create a real-time snapshot of where birds in the world are located. Details can be found on their website.
- iBird app—Apps are available for all platforms and are a wonderful way of identifying birds in the field. We have even been able to play the bird call from the app and birds responded.
- Audubon Bird App
- Baltimore Orioles (Science I Can Read Book) by Barbara Brenner
- Bird Songs From Around the World or Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song by Les Beletsky
- Birds of Oklahoma by Stan Tekiela—I highly recommend this resource if you live in Oklahoma. It has beautiful photos and is easy to use.
- Burgess Bird Book by Thornton Burgess (other versions are available, but this one has beautiful color images)
- Burgess Bird Book Companion (includes links to full text, audio, and information about the birds)
- Choosing and Using Binoculars
- Choosing and Using a Field Guide
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Getting Started in Birding
- Great Backyard Bird Count—occurs every February (check the site for specific dates)
- Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock or read online/download ebook
- pages 27-144
- Handbook of Nature Study blog Bird Resources
- Merlin Bird ID App
- Peterson First Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson
- The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies