To identify the species, sex, and age of a bird, a bird bander in North America relies either on personal experience with the species or on the massive handbook of bird descriptions known as the Pyle Guide. The Pyle Guide is full of confidence-instilling descriptions like “Juvenile rectrices usually pointed, but occasionally truncate” and “Male scapulars brownish-black, compared to blackish-brown in female.” To make matters still more confusing, birds can vary from site to site, meaning that the description in Pyle based on a population 100 miles distant may not be correct for your own local population. One of the best tools a bird bander can have, as they squint at a bird and wonder whether its iris is “red-brown” or “maroon” and whether that is even relevant to their local birds, is a comparison photo showing local birds.
You have to be a bit lucky to capture such photos: you have to happen to catch both birds at the same time. When you usually catch five or fewer birds at a time, as we do, the chances that any two of them will be an informative comparison becomes small. Each of these pair photos is a little special for this reason.
One of the many fun things about bird banding is that you never know who you’ll catch next: every bird is a surprise. To try to share that feeling, I’m running brief profiles of selected birds we’ve caught in a mini-blog called “Notes from the Station.” The birds profiled definitely tend toward the more conventionally “exciting,” but I try not to neglect our good common birds too—they have their own interesting stories. Each profile includes a photo of the bird and some information about it, and every one is a real bird with real data. I try to do a few new profiles each week. Check it out!
Facebird. Instagrebe. Tikstork. Linkedpenguin. Twitter. Only one of these is real, and I’m pretty sure that even on Twitter the number of actual birds participating is negligible. Birds do have social networks though—the old-fashioned analog kind, made up of flockmates and siblings and reproductive partners and rivals. Some species, like the Black-capped Chickadee, have tight-knit flocks with elaborate social hierarchies; others, like the Hermit Thrush, live most of their lives alone. These differences are surely fundamental to shaping the lives of birds, from their mundane daily experiences to how they tackle life-or-death challenges. If you spot a deadly predator like a Cooper’s Hawk, do you try to disappear quietly into the brush or do you risk your safety by giving an alarm call to warn your companions?
It’s been… 20 months (yikes) since my last post, and some stuff has changed! I’m back in the San Francisco Bay Area where the juncos look right – none of this slate-colored nonsense – and I now co-run a bird banding station.