Sawwhet Owl
Everyone knows this one.

Way, way back, during our inuagural game of Gone Birding, my friend Molly developed a theory of birds. There were, in her book, three kinds: Owls, Pigeons, and Ducks.

I just chalked this up to my friends being weird, until I took the Master Naturalist Class at the Montana Natural History Center this fall. There I learned, among a plethora of other fascinating facts, that Aristotle also divided the avian world in three: land birds (pigeons!) water birds (ducks!) and birds that would fly over either (which included raptors, and therefore I’m going to spot him the owls.)

Laura Kammemeier, among others, has been working hard to promote the idea that birders need to proactively share their expertise and enthusiasm. And I totally agree. Which is why I am now fascinated with the question of how non-birders already see birds: after all, we can’t reach out to people if we don’t know where they currently are. And apparently, non-birders are more apt to divide birds into general kinds than species lists.

The Master Naturalist class gave me a first look at this. It is a group of people who were already interested enough in the flora and fauna of Montana to give up two evenings a week to more study, but most of them are not birders in particular: they are hikers, organic gardeners, environmental studies students. Most of them were pretty good in the Owl-Duck-Pigeon range, but they got bogged down when trying to make the leap from a study skin to a particular page of the field guide for, say, a blackbird or a sparrow. And that frustration was epic. What was worse, though, is that when they would ask me for help (I having intemperately bragged about my minor expertise) I couldn’t think of a good happy medium to guide them between giving them the answer outright and just cryptically muttering about bill shape or telling them to flip through until they saw a page that looked good. I think we birders, long habituated, tend to wildly overestimate how easy it is for the average person to distinguish a seed-eating from an insect-eating bill. Overall, my classmates seemed to much prefer things like trees, for which a dichotomous key was possible.

We can try to make things simpler, but at the same time, we need to admit that a lot of birds are just tricky enough that people need to have some motivation to learn about them. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much. Think about the owls, pigeons, and ducks: the birds people already know. It takes only a little sociological, symbolic, or entertainment value to get the idea of a bird into the public mind. In the U.S., almost everyone knows a Bald Eagle and a dove, a woodpecker and a Wild Turkey. Baseball fans know what a Northern Cardinal looks like, and I doubt there’s a tattoo enthusiast in the northeast who doesn’t know what a Barn Swallow is, even if they can’t call it by name. When I traveled in Spain, my non-birding companion Kaylen was excited to see the White Stork (brings babies) and the Hoopoe (she’d just read Haroun and the Sea of Stories.)

Which I think is rather key. Knowing what a sparrow is is kind of easy. Knowing what a Lincoln’s Sparrow is is kind of hard (I missed it on the Master Naturalist quiz, to my chagrin.) Meeting people where they are probably means abandoning a focus on names, at least temporarily, in favor of a focus on other ideas about birds: ideas like meaning (Robins = spring to most kids, even in places where Robins overwinter, according to a classmate who’d spent time in Texas) or simple proximity (my other friend Molly has probably done more to get non-birders interested in birds with this article than I ever have.) If we do that, the interest in names will come naturally — who hasn’t been asked, by a friend or acquaintance, to finally slap a label on the bright-colored bird that crossed their field of vision one day? But more important than names, for that first round, is a set of facts and associations.

Saw-whet Owl photo by Todd Zino

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at