May 5, 2014

Understanding Diversity through Birding

by Heather Falconer

A little brown bird.

Twitchers, birders, avian habitués of the Northern Hemisphere… It is that magical time of year, again: Spring migration. It’s a time of opportunity for adding to life-lists, for early morning sloshes in muddy wetlands and clambering through thickets – for extreme frustration trying to identify that LBB (little brown bird) who just won’t sit still long enough for you to tell if it has wing-bands or if its crown is black, rufous, dusty, or some variation thereof.

Whether you are new to bird watching or an expert ornithologist, however, taking time to sit in the quiet of nature and watch the great diversity of bird life can be extremely exciting. More so, it helps us to appreciate the richness and diversity of the world we live in, and just how interconnected we are with our surroundings. Why are some bird bills rounded and others pencil-like? Why do osprey talons have small spikes on their pads, but vulture talons do not? How are owls able to fly without making a sound?


The beaks of four species of Galapagos finches, from Darwin’s Journal of Researches, 1839. Darwin found that the beaks of finches on islands throughout the Galapagos were specialized to optimize the diet available to them. Thus, finches on islands where large, hard-shelled nuts were prevalent developed robust beaks (far left), and finches on islands where insects or flowers were available developed delicate, pointy beaks (far right).

Opportunity to observe birds in their environment and learn about their adaptations can take place anywhere: from the Sheep Meadow in Central Park to the precipices of the Rocky Mountains. Even better, it requires little-to-no start-up costs, is an activity that requires no special skill or physical ability, and is accessible to individuals of all ages. Are binoculars helpful? Yes. But many a bird has been observed with nothing more than the watcher’s two eyes and ears!

If you are interested in becoming a birder or introducing the idea of observation of the natural world to students, below is a list of some resources you might find useful:

  • Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is helping to make your birding even more pleasant. The CLO has developed two new tools that birders (at least in North America) should add to their arsenal: a free identification app called Merlin, and a series of free pdfs for warbler identification. Merlin is an iPod app that draw on CLOs eBird citizen-science project, and lets you identify what you just saw with a virtual, layman-friendly taxonomic key. The warbler identification guides are perfect for close study of the wide variation that takes place within this genus.
  • Visionlearning provides learning modules on adaptation, taxonomy, and the work of Darwin in the Galapagos – perfect for the classroom teacher looking to supplement their curriculum.
  • The Audubon Society offers an online guide to North American birds, including discussions on the natural history of birds, avian anatomy, and conservation.
  • For decades, the Council for Environmental Education, the American Forest Foundation, and Project WET Foundation have each been providing free environmental education materials for use in the classroom or camp. Visit their websites to learn about Project WILD (and WILD Aquatic), Project Learning Tree, and Project WET, respectively. Each Project includes activities on adaptation and diversity for a wide range of age levels.
  • “Citizen science” is a term that is becoming more and more popular, and refers to projects that average citizens who are not trained scientists can get involved in. Projects range from identifying galaxies online with Galaxy Zoo, to recording sightings of California condors. You can learn about other citizen science projects by visiting the Citizen Science Center website.

Do you know of other resources that are out there for birding enthusiasts? Add them to our comments below!

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.