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The value of actively observing birds

observing birds
A question David Sibley has asked in the field: How different is the head-on head shape of different songbirds? (Very different; lots more work to do with this.) Field sketch of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Nashville Warbler by David Sibley

Tips for improving birding skills usually include the suggestion to carry a notebook and take notes or draw sketches in the field. Your first thought might be, “I can’t draw, and what could I write?” but this misses the point. It doesn’t matter what you write or what your drawings look like. The value of drawing and note-taking is in the process, not the product.

The reason is simple — these things force you to look at details, to become actively engaged in observation. And it doesn’t have to be writing or sketching; just being an active observer has rewards.

A recent study of perception and memory found that when students went to a museum and took snapshots of artwork, they remembered very little of it. In fact, they remembered less than students who did not take pictures. But students who photographed specific details of the artwork remembered more, even details they hadn’t photographed.

If simply taking a few seconds to choose what part of an object to photograph can have a measurable impact on memory, imagine what a minute or two of actively observing a bird can do.

“It doesn’t have to be writing or sketching; just being an active observer has rewards.”

Do the kinglets have different wing flicks? (Yes, slightly.) Field Sketch by David Sibley
A question David Sibley has asked in the field: Do the kinglets have different wing flicks? (Yes, slightly.) Golden-crowned Kinglet above; Ruby-crowned below. Field sketch by David Sibley

For example: You’re walking along a path at your local patch, and a Song Sparrow appears in a spot where you’ve seen Song Sparrow dozens of times before. You could just continue walking without a second thought and might not remember at the end whether you actually saw a Song Sparrow that day. On the other hand, if you stop to watch, ask a question, and pick out some details, you will remember seeing the Song Sparrow and those details, as well as other details that you didn’t even focus on.

It can be fun and enlightening to come up with one question for the day and ask it for every bird you see. Taking the time to look for foot color, or tail movements, or head shape, or something else on every species you see will lead to lots of interesting discoveries.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter how you engage. All you need to do is take a minute or two to watch and wonder.

This article was first published in the September/October 2017 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

5 questions for David Sibley about his book ‘What It’s Like to Be a Bird’

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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