How Often Do You See a Bird Before You Remember It?

Northern Mockingbird, Photo Credit J Labrador (Flickr Creative Commons)

Northern Mockingbird, Photo Credit J Labrador (Flickr Creative Commons)

Before I even started birding I was frequently interacting with birders or nature lovers, and I was always amazed by how they could just see a bird and know what it was. I had a hard enough time remembering my friends’ names, let alone the names of birds and trees. It just seemed so unattainable to me.

If I’m actually making a dedicated birding trip I always have at least my binoculars and Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series). There are a lot of bird guides out there, this just happens to be the one I like the most because it’s fairly comprehensive and has illustrations instead of photographs. I like to use illustrations because they can highlight characteristics that might not show up in photographs. I usually cross check the illustration with a photograph from a Google image search.

While I love seeing new birds and being able to identify them, I have to say that my favorite kind of birding trips are the ones where I see lots of birds I recognize and maybe 1-2 birds I’ve never seen before. I find that this is how I actually learn birds and their names, because I’m just learning it one at a time. I usually do a little bit of research on a bird after I see it as well. This is a lot harder to do if I just added 14 birds to my bird list (like I did on my trip to Piedmont Park in Atlanta).

Muscovy Ducks, Photo Credit Ash Bruxvoort

Muscovy Ducks, Photo Credit Ash Bruxvoort

So how many times do I have to see a bird before I commit it to memory? That really depends. My short answer would be three times, as long as the following things happen.

  1. I see and am able to identify the bird within an hour of seeing it and I am able to read a little bit about its habits and appearance.
  2. I see the bird 1-2 more times consecutively after that first viewing. This could be in one day, or it could be over the course of a few weeks. I saw a Northern Mockingbird for the first time in Atlanta, and saw them several times over the course of my time there. I was able to recognize the bird immediately after I saw two or three in one hour.
  3. I talk to someone about what I saw. This is huge for me, and I’m sure my friends hate me for it, but I have to be able to tell someone about what birds I saw to help me build associations in my mind.
  4. I’ m also more likely to remember birds that have some large, identifiable characteristic. Sometimes these characteristics are small, like spots of red around the eyes, but if I make that observation I know to look for it. I recognized Muscovy Ducks very easily because they were everywhere in Atlanta and also because I think they’re pretty ugly.

This might sound kind of complicated, but it’s not. If you want to learn birds (or trees or wildflowers or whatever you like) the biggest things you need to do are be consistent and observant. It also helps to have birding friends or mentors to help you make those more difficult identifications when you need them.


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