Late one afternoon last month, I was feeling as gloomy as it looked outside. Disappointed that I was in the midst of another holiday season and I still hadn’t accomplished my goal for yet another year, I tried to cheer myself up by reminding myself of the proverb I’ve been quoting since my CSG days: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” After all, the Libra star bulletin of Town & Country’s horoscope for January assured me that 2014 was going to be filled with new experiences, and that my world was about to open up in surprising ways.
So, before I left the Upper Arlington Public Library with instructions to start knitting my own Scotland, I searched the literature racks for something constructive I could do in the new year. I found it in The Song Sparrow, the newsletter of the Grange Insurance Audubon Center and Columbus Audubon.
With one glance at an article titled “New Introduction to Ornithology Workshop Series,” I knew this was it. How could I resist the charm of a seven-week class, with the added bonus of four field trips in the spring?
Taught by Angelika Nelson, curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and Tetrapod Research & Teaching Collection at The Ohio State University, the class explores the diversity, ecology, evolution and taxonomy of the birds of North America, with an emphasis on identifying the birds of Ohio. Each class begins with a 30-minute lecture Dr. Nelson gives on a topic, such as the origins of birds; foraging and avoiding predators; feathers and flight; migration and navigation; song and plumage, territoriality and courtship; eggs, nests and chicks; and conservation of populations and communities. The rest of each session is spent on an exercise to help students name body parts of birds and identify families and species of swimming waterbirds, flying and walking waterbirds, birds of prey, larger landbirds, aerial landbirds and songbirds.
Yesterday evening, I tucked Jim McCormac’s Birds of Ohio in my handbag and joined 35 other classmates at Ohio State’s Museum of Biological Diversity for our first two-hour session.
Several different reasons prompted these people to get out of the house this winter and take this class. Some registered to pursue a new hobby in retirement, several others sought to add to their enjoyment of being outdoors, and a trio of teenagers ensured I wasn’t the youngest person in the class. I discovered that still more students were a fellow librarian, the owner of five parakeets, an amateur photographer, a volunteer from the Ohio Wildlife Center, a music teacher who wants to identify bird calls, and the owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Westerville. Bingo! These were just the kind of people I wanted to get to know.
What three characteristics of birds can you name? That’s the question we answered to begin the class. Watching a clip from David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds introduced us to archaeological specimens suggesting that birds evolved from the Archaeopteryx, a creature illustrating the transition from a feathered, winged dinosaur to the modern bird that had both reptilian and bird-like features. I had learned something fascinating already!
Then, we paired up and surveyed five tables of museum specimens of swimming and diving waterbirds, all part of Ohio State’s collection of more than 17,000 birds, some well over 100 years old. Meticulously cataloged and organized, the specimens are used in the classroom by students learning how to identify various species. Tags attached to each bird describing where and when it was found help researchers explore ranges and locations for breeding and migrating. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that no handling of the birds was involved!
After choosing me, my friendly partner chose the Common Loon, describing its elaborate necklace and feathery cape as resembling a Gustav Klimt painting. How perfect, I thought! We wrote out and drew a few characteristics of the species that would help us identify it in the field. Then, we pointed out those specimen’s features to the group.
Until we meet again next Thursday evening, we’ll be tackling some homework. We’ll watch the “Inside Birding” videos by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ll also tune in for three hours of video podcasts supplementing the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, covering family overviews, species profiles, tutorials, and biographies of Roger Tory Peterson, the ornithologist and artist who revolutionized birdwatching.
To learn bird topography, we’ll label the parts of a bird on drawings provided in our notebook. Eventually, we’ll listen to songs and calls, like the more than 38,000 recordings of bird calls in the collection of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics.
A few of us had already downloaded Merlin Bird ID, a new, free app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Released this week, the app tells which of the 285 most common birds of North America you’re most likely seeing, based on your location, date and a brief description. Watch a video about it here.
And we’ll start reading some suggested texts, including the sixth edition of Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, by Roger Tory Peterson; Essential Ornithology, by Graham Scott; The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology; and Ornithology, by Frank B. Gill; How to Be a Better Birder, by Derek Lovitch; The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds; and The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, by Paul R. Ehrlich.
I’ll keep you posted on how things are going!