What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 1

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. You plan a big birding trip outside your local area.  You read and study your field guides. You listen to the songs and calls. When you get there you do OK identifying the birds. Yet you still have this nagging feeling you could have been better prepared.

The same nagging feeling hits every year when migration comes through.  You know most of the birds and songs, just not as well as you think you should.

So what is the best way to prepare for these situations?  Let me share what modern research has to say on the topic and how it worked for me this past fall. I will cover the visual side of identifying and at a later dater date cover the auditory side.

First though, the background story.

Texas – June 2014

Last June I had the opportunity to bird South Texas.  I thought I did a fair job prepping myself by studying the field guides and listening to calls on CD.  I ended up ID’ing most birds without too many problem.  Then after I got home I had that feeling I could have done better.  There were those lingering doubts a time or two when ID’ing some of the birds. It was the same doubting feeling I had previously birding other new areas.  Sometimes even during local migration. I just felt that I could have been better prepared. I needed to find a better way to prepare for my next trip.

Jump Forward to October 2014

In mid-October I found out I would be going to Southern California for work.  The trip would take place in mid-November.  Fortunately I would be able to stay and bird for a couple of days.  So I had 4 weeks to learn the 25 or so birds I didn’t already know.

Just a week later my sister-in-law and wife came up with a trip to Costa Rica in mid-December. So I had 5 weeks to learn a possible 200 new species in addition to the Southern California birds. Factor in losing the week traveling for business in mid-November and I was faced with a major task.

How would I learn that many birds that quickly? I had to come up with a new method of learning, and quickly.


A Radio Story

Often in life timing is everything.

Somewhere around the time I learned that I would be going to Southern California I was listening to my local NPR station.   I caught the story maybe a minute into it.  That was fine since the reason I listen to NPR is that the stories are usually 10-15 minutes long, not 30 second bits.  (OK, my rant about news coverage is done)

What I gathered was the story involved a student who was having problems learning. He was a bright guy who had enrolled in pre-med and had done well on his entrance exams. But he didn’t do well in his first semester.  He studied like everyone else – read and reread his material and highlighted and underlined as necessary, but he was still doing badly. He figured there had to be a better way.

So he researched learning methods.  He contacted as many of the researchers as he could.  He became obsessed with the topic.  The short version is that he discovered the methods he was using were the least efficient methods  – rereading and highlighting.  There were “better” methods.

Next Week – Part 2

Check in next week when I discuss the “better” methods and how I used them on fall birding trips. And hopefully you will comment on how you learn birds when going to a new area.

2 Replies to “What Modern Research Says About Learning Birds – Part 1”

  1. Great timing – I’ve got a two week trip to Costa Rica coming up in March and have been slowly studying. I’m looking forward to reading the methods and seeing what others use. Although we have an excellent guide booked for the trip, I’m trying to become familiar with as many of the birds as I can.

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