Posted on

Birding Lessons, and That Ugly Word “Taxonomy”

Yesterday I joined a nice “Birding for Beginners” group at our community center, led by wonderful local naturalist Christine Ward and others, and it was lots of fun – and I learned how much I don’t know! Just what I need. I love trying to identify birds and am fantastically bad at it. Here’s a summary of what I learned:

1. Here in western Massachusetts, 99% of the bird sounds you hear in the woods are catbirds, slate-grey birds that are clever mimics. So even though you think you’re hearing 10 different birds, they’re all actually catbirds.

2. Another 99% of bird sounds are actually various kinds of tree frogs that sound like birds, but aren’t.

3. Yes, I realize that’s 198% of creatures – I am an aspiring birder, not an aspiring mathematician.

4. When going about learning your birds, it’s best to break things down. I own a great book called the Sibley Guide to Birds – an instant classic. (Ironically, it was sent to a newspaper where I once worked for review; the editors thought it wasn’t “local” enough – as if there were no birds there! – so I got to take it home: a nice bonus for a sorely underpaid job.) Anyway, it’s a fantastic book but a bit overwhelming for the beginner – it covers every bird in North America, so many of the birds in it aren’t found where I live. I then bought a guide to birds in Massachusetts – also good, but I found that several of the birds we found on the walk yesterday weren’t in there. I guess I need to find a good middle ground – comprehensive but not overwhelming – the “happy medium” as the late, great Bob Ross would have said.

5. Other lessons: be patient, and learn to sit in your back yard with a cooler of beer. (That’s what they told me.) Birds will come to you. Learn to walk very slowly and quietly out in the woods, and you’ll see more birds and other creatures and you’ll be more “in the present” if I may verge into the realm of New Agey-ness.

6. As David Sibley, the authority on birds, has said, put your book down and watch the birds – while you’re trying to find the bird in the book, it will fly away. Also, learn to read signs like “what ecosystem is the bird in” – swamp, heavy foliage, garden – and look at subtle things like flight patterns, time of year, numbers of birds found together, time of day.

7. Most of all, go with people who know their birds – many people are a fountain of knowledge and are happy to share their knowledge with poor saps like me.

8. The overall lesson I learned was that birding seems like a preposterously complicated activity, until you learn to break it down into component parts: divide and conquer.

I’m trying to put that knowledge to use at work as we at Berkshire try to tackle the thorniest of thorny subjects – the way we keep our contacts organized. Right now it’s as if all of our many contacts are categorized as “Crows,” and some are categorized as “Crows” or “Crows –> Subset: Caterpillars.” I think it’s a problem many companies struggle with – they start with a small group of people and don’t set up proper “rules” for organizing people early on, and soon enough, like us, you have 40,000 people we deal with (or have dealt with, or want to deal with more) who need for a Carl Linnaeus to come along and put everyone into nice neat categories: that oh so ugly word “taxonomy” that always reminds me of stuffed mammal heads staring at me from glassy eyes. We hope to share our findings with others once we’ve gotten to the bottom of the snakepit that is database management: I know we’re not alone in finding our systems hopelessly convoluted after years of confusion.

How anyone ever figured out how to sort all the birds in, say, Papua New Guinea is absolutely beyond me, but my hat’s off to them!

-Bill Siever

One thought on “Birding Lessons, and That Ugly Word “Taxonomy”

  1. Bill, I recommend the Peterson Field Guide – it’s split into volumes by geographic region, so you can avoid dealing with the birds of California.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *