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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Birder's Handbook

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Cornell ornithologist Stephen Kress about his new book “National Audubon Society Birder’s Handbook” and about his passion for birds.


CURWOOD: It's peak migration time for birds. Some are flying as far as 12,000 miles to reach their destinations. Along the way are several stops to refuel and rest, and they offer us a perfect opportunity to join the always popular pastime of bird watching. Dr. Stephen Kress is an instructor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. He is also the author of the new edition of the National Audubon Society's "Birder's Handbook." Dr. Kress, why do you watch birds?

KRESS: Well, birds are available, they're colorful, they sing, they fly, their courtship and their mating habits are exciting to watch for people. And I think that they just enlighten our lives through all their activities.

CURWOOD: When did your passion for birding begin?

KRESS: I think my passion for birding began back in the fourth grade, when I was asked by Mrs. Reed, my fourth-grade teacher, if anybody in the class could identify a brown bird that was sitting in the grass. The bird was just poking into the grass, not too conspicuous. But then it flew up and it flashed a white rump. And I knew, right away, when I looked in the book, that that was a northern flicker. And that was the beginning of my bird identification. And I think that must have lit some little candle that has grown into my career.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at the "Birder's Handbook" that you’ve recently published. It's a beautiful book. Not only is the art in it really lovely, but it seems to operate at several levels. If you really know a lot about birding, I guess there are some things in here. And if you don't know a whole lot, it's not too intimidating.

KRESS: Well, that's it. You know, I wanted people that have the basics to also find something useful, and the chapters particularly on photography and sound recording and note-taking, counting birds, those are all techniques that really sort of go after you've identified the birds. But I wanted people to learn how to pick up binoculars and also to identify birds before we did anything else.

CURWOOD: In your book you have a rather interesting way of arranging the birds. Rather than the famous book put together by Roger Tory Peterson, "Field Guide to the Birds," you have a running discussion and an evolution, kind of, of the different families of birds in here. Why did you do that?

KRESS: I encourage people, when they're learning to recognize birds, to concentrate on learning families of birds. Because when you do that, it helps you sort of, by process of elimination, come down to the actual species that you're looking at. For example, it's important to separate nuthatches from woodpeckers from creepers and other kinds of small birds. Likewise, warblers as a family, vireos as another family. And if you learn these birds by families, then you can turn to the section in the field guide and leaf through the warblers, or the vireos, or the flycatchers. But first learn the families and then look to the species.

CURWOOD: So let's talk about nuthatches and chickadees and titmice and wrens and creepers. On first glance, they all look pretty much alike. How do you use the family system to tell them apart?

KRESS: All these small, little birds that come to back yard bird feeders, like chickadees and nuthatches, titmice, they look alike at first. But if you put them in the families, then you can begin to sort them out. Woodpeckers, of course, hang on the sides of trees, and they sort of hitch their way up the tree as they're looking for food, insects and larvals and eggs in the tree barks. Nuthatches, in contrast, are a different family of small birds, sparrow-sized birds that turn themselves upside-down frequently and work their way head-first down the tree trunk. Another family, the creepers, also work the tree trunk, but they spiral their way up the tree. And then when they get high up, they drop to the nearby tree and they start working from the base on up.

CURWOOD: In your chapter "Closing the Distance," you offer some tricks to get closer to birds. Can you tell us about some of the tricks you mention?

KRESS: Right. In that chapter I'm talking about land birds, and I am encouraging people to realize that birds will come closer if you do certain things that are attractive to them. And there are several tricks that birders have discovered over the years. One of the most useful tricks is to imitate the alarm call of a land bird. Because when birds see a predator, such as a snake or a fox, they will often make a particular sound that rallies other small birds close. And if you make that call, other birds are likely to come and rally around. Because together, all these different birds of different species can chase that predator away. It's a very fundamental kind of response to a predator. If you like, I could imitate it.

CURWOOD: Yeah, could you please?

KRESS: Okay. What's called the pishing sound, sounds like this. Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht!

CURWOOD: Let me try that now, see if I get this right. Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht! Psshhht! That it?

KRESS: Actually, you're a natural. That's fantastic.

CURWOOD: So I just head out to a good birding spot and I make that racket, and...

KRESS: Well, I've got to tell you, just so you don't get discouraged, it works best in the spring, when birds are in a nesting condition. And if you happen to be going through the woods and you hear a little chip! chip! chip! that means the birds are already excited. And then if you add to that with this alarm call, you're more likely to get a response. There's a squealing, squeaking sound that also works if the pishing doesn't work, or you may alternate with it. But there is a sound that's made by kissing the back of your hand. It sounds sort of like this. (Makes kissing sounds)

CURWOOD: And that will do it, too.

KRESS: It will work.

CURWOOD: Your book has a number of North American birding hot spots in it. I'm wondering what's your favorite spot to watch birds.

KRESS: Well, my favorite birding spot is a little island off mid-coast Maine called Eastern Egg Rock. There, you can not only see puffins, but you can see thousands of terns -- Arctic, common, and roseate terns -- black guillemote, eiders, and many other kinds of sea birds. Even whales are spotted frequently.

CURWOOD: Dr. Stephen Kress is the author of the National Audubon Society "Birder's Handbook." He's vice president for bird conservation at the Audubon Society, and an instructor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Thank you so much for taking this time today.

KRESS: Thank you, Steve.



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