A habitat is a bird’s home, and many birds are choosy. Narrow down your list by keeping in mind where you are. Identifying birds quickly and correctly is all about probability. By knowing what’s likely to be seen you can get a head start on recognizing the birds you run into. And when you see a bird you weren’t expecting, you’ll know to take an extra look. Habitat is both the first and last question to ask yourself when identifying a bird. Ask it first, so you know what you’re likely to see, and last as a double check. You can fine-tune your expectations by taking geographic range and time of year into consideration.
Birding by probability
We think of habitats as collections of plants: grassland, cypress swamp, pine woods, deciduous forest. But they’re equally collections of birds. By noting the habitat you’re in, you can build a hunch about the kinds of birds you’re most likely to see. North America has more than 50 species of warblers and over 30 species of hawks. It’s impossible to keep all these possibilities straight every time you spot one of these birds. But you can make things a lot easier by considering the habitat you’re in. For example, your field guide shows lots of sparrows with rusty heads, but you can use habitat and probability to winnow them down. Is yours hiding in a bunch of reeds, hopping around the base of a pine, or singing from a fencepost? The reeds tell you it’s probably a Swamp Sparrow. If you’re in pine woods, it’s more likely a Chipping Sparrow. And if it’s along a fencerow it could well be a Field Sparrow. Click through the illustrations at right for more examples. Of course, if you only let yourself identify birds you expect to see, you’ll have a hard time finding rare or unusual birds. But the best way to find rarities is to know your common birds first. (The ones left over are the rare ones.) Birding by probability just helps you sort through them that much more quickly.
Use range maps
You don’t have to...