There are two types of birds: the pretty little birds that would look perfect perched on a wispy dogwood twig and the large birds with exaggerated proportions that could likely break the twig if they sat on it. These are the passerines versus the non-passerines, the songbirds versus the birds who spend more time doing things than singing about it. While passerines are heavily favored on kitschy spring décor and their songs preferable for setting a calming ambiance, the non-passerines represent the beautiful intrigue and complexity of the bird world.
The most beloved of the non-passerines are arguably the ducks, which are generally accepted as cute. There are two broad categories of ducks: the dabblers and the divers. Dabblers prefer smaller bodies of water, love to attend pond-side picnics, and are characterized by their habit of bobbing their heads underwater as they feed while leaving their tails poking up. These include the ubiquitous mallard, the ornate wood duck, the grass-eating widgeon, and the tiny teal. Divers, on the other hand, thrive in open bodies of water like bays and oceans. They are much more streamlined and agile in the water, although they are awkward on land because their feet are placed so far back toward their tails. Some of the more common divers include the buffleheads, who essentially resemble Mega Stuf Oreos, the dark seafaring scoters, the eiders with their bright white plumage, and the crested mergansers with their serrated bills perfect for snatching up slippery fish. However, not all duck-like birds are necessarily ducks: geese are not ducks, swans are not ducks, and neither are the other miscellaneous waterfowl. Grebes are similar to ducks but are much smaller, have lobed toes instead of webbed feet, and are essentially tailless. Coots are also small and have lobed feet but unlike grebes, sometimes feed on shores. Cormorants may resemble diving ducks, but they also are their own distinct family, marked by their snake-like necks and slender, hook-tipped beaks. Finally, there are loons, who are large, boldly patterned, and capable of producing some of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds known to northern lakes.
Ducks rule the waters, but there is an equally vibrant population of birds that lives next to the water. First, there are the long-legged wading birds who stand silent and still like cattails until they spear unsuspecting fish with their giant bills. These are usually herons but upon rarer occasions could include the more robust cranes or the chicken-like rails. Waders like to stick to marshy habitats, and at the beach, sandpipers take over their job of patrolling shallow waters for food. Some sandpipers, such as willets and yellowlegs, have bills larger than their heads and are so tall that it looks like their legs might buckle under the birds’ weight. Other sandpipers are almost three times smaller and are collectively known as “peeps,” an apt name for birds that look like little mounds of sand come to life. Plovers are similar to sandpipers but more compact with short bills, large eyes, and a habit of running in short starts and stops like wind-up toys. Shorebirds can look ridiculously similar from species to species, making them a terror to identify. While their calls and whistles provide the best key to identification, they are often quiet, reclusive, and skittish. Seagulls, however, the last major division of shorebirds, can be easily sorted by narrowing them down by size and paying attention to their wingtips, the color of their feet, and the color of their bills.
Non-passerines aren’t limited to ponds and shorelines; they’re also in the open skies above broad fields, hidden in the forest treetops, and perched on top of street lights watching and waiting. There are more than five hundred species of raptors in the world, but the majority of those in America can still be narrowed down into general categories. Hawks, for example, are best divided by silhouette. Those with long tails and pointed wings are falcons, including peregrines, merlins, and kestrels. Hawks that have long tails but rounded wings are the accipiters, most frequently represented by the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. Finally, there are the buteos—the hawks with broad wings and broad tails. Buteos include the red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and eagles. At night, when hawks are roosting, owls take over patrol. They are best identified by their faces as they are rather shapeless and mostly feather. For example, the barred owl can be identified by its brown eyes and lack of ear tufts, while the great horned owl is identified by its large ear tufts, bright yellow eyes, and white throat. Owls may also be distinguished by their respective voices by which they make their presence known long before they are usually spotted.
The span of non-passerines from the fluffy bufflehead to the great horned owl and his soul-piercing stare is staggering. Nevertheless, once they are divided into categories, the relations between the vast array of species becomes more evident. The more precise the divisions become, the more obvious connections between bird species, habitats, and habits become. That’s why taxonomists can spend years debating over whether or not striolated puffbirds that stutter before they sing should be considered separate species. Science will never reach perfect accuracy in its divisions, but the closer it gets, the broader our understanding becomes.
Jenner, Andrew. The Factious, High-Drama World of Bird Taxonomy. 28 Feb. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/to-name-a-mockingbird/518013/.
Peterson, Roger T. How to Know the Birds. The New American Library, 1957.
Peterson, Roger T. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. 6th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Photo Credit: https://cdn.download.ams.birds.cornell.edu/api/v1/asset/140121811/