What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 2

Last week I wrote about my search for a better way to learn birds. I will now conclude the story. (link to last week’s blog)

What the Researchers Discovered

The researchers found out that the most effective way of learning and more importantly, retaining, is to learn a small amount of material and test yourself on it. Repeatedly.  Using things like flashcards or small written tests. Once you have learned a small amount of material do the same thing with the next group of material.  BUT MAKE SURE TO GO BACK AND TEST YOURSELF ON THE PREVIOUS MATERIAL ON A REGULAR BASIS.

Here is a link to research by a group of professors and another article on the topic.

On to Southern California and Costa Rica

So how did I implement the research?  For next to nothing I purchased a second copy of Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica from Amazon. I already had a copy of Sibley’s Western Birds that I decided to sacrifice for the cause.  After reviewing status and distribution charts for both areas, I came up with a list of birds to study.

Using an Exacto knife I proceeded to cut out the selected birds and tape them to the back of 3×5 note cards.  Then I wrote the key field marks and for Costa Rica birds the area’s they might be seen. I started with the birds listed as common and moved to uncommon.  This was not a fast process.  I had the common birds done in a couple of weeks.  However I was still cutting out the uncommon species the week before we left for Costa Rica.

Gray-headed Chachalaca
And now the real thing. In a light rain a Gray-headed Chachalaca which was easy to ID after studying the cards. La Fortuna area, Costa Rica 12/16/14


Yellow-throated Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia giving some Tanagers a hard time. La Fortuna area 12/16/14

055I ended up with well over 200 cards, which can be seen by the size of the stack.

056I settled in a routine of quizzing myself while I was on the treadmill (i.e. dreadmill – I hate being indoors).  Let me say that sure helped pass the time.  I worked in groups of 15-20 cards and would quiz myself on the picture, asking what field marks made this different from similar species.  I usually never did get them all right, like confusing the Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreeper.

My Results

Here is the key point, the birds whose names I couldn’t remember immediately in the field, I recognized enough that I could describe them in my voice recorder and easily ID them back at the lodge.

In both Southern California and Costa Rica I had no problems with any of the birds I studied. The problem I did have were birds that were so low on the status and distribution lists that I hadn’t bothered to learn them.  Carrying the voice recorder and describing the birds in detail made ID’ing them relatively easy though.

I finished both trips without any lingering doubts like I had on previous trips.

The Future

Going forward I will now use this method before migration or before traveling to new areas. I have already made cards for the winter finches and hawks I might encounter in the Midwest.  Soon I will be making cards for what I hope will be an early spring migration.


So how do you learn new birds? Please leave an answer in the comment section.





5 Replies to “What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 2”

  1. As I mentioned, I’m going to Costa Rica for two weeks of birding in the middle of March. I’ve been doing about it a bit more haphazardly, which I know isn’t right. I borrowed a friends flashcards and he did the same thing – cut them out of the Stiles and other guides. I’m also flipping through a photo book of the 255 most common species there and using an online quiz. Since this is a tour we have a list of 5-15 species we should get each day and I’m focusing on learning those.

    My goal is to learn what I can, but my main focus is not necessarily to name the exact species, but to know what to look for diagnostically after the guide IDs it. So learning the different families is a big key to my method.

    1. Good to hear you are using the flashcards. I wasn’t sure how many people had heard that those are supposed to be the best method of learning. My daughter says that some teachers stress that way of learning, so the younger generation knows about it. And you are right focusing on the 5-15 species. I probably focused on 100 and those ended up being the ones I saw. When you get back you will have to let us know if you felt as prepared as you would have liked.


      1. Thanks Bob!! I’ll definitely let you know – I have a feeling I won’t be as prepared as I want, but better prepared none the less. Heck, gives me an excuse to go back in the future 😉

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