March 15, 2018: An Introduction to Birds and Birding; (including Cooper’s Hawks).

March 15, 2018: An Introduction to Birds and Birding;
(including Cooper’s Hawks).

By Robert Alvo, Conservation Biologist.

So you’ve seen a neat bird in your yard or around town, and are wondering what it is. In fact a number of people in Hintonburg noticed a hawk prowling the neighbourhood a few weeks ago, and someone got in touch with me to identify it. It turned out to be a Cooper’s Hawk.

“Was it supposed to be there?” Sure, it’s probably taking advantage of residents’ bird feeders to pick off smaller birds.

“Is it perhaps one of the Tunneys Pasture birds?” No, the Tunneys birds I know of are Peregrine Falcons that sometimes still perch near the top of the Coats Building, which was used as a “hacking” site some years ago to release young falcons into the wild after being hatched in incubators.

“Ok, but how can I identify birds myself?” Well, you’ll need eyes and ears, and the ears can often be more useful than the eyes. Binoculars can help greatly, and a field guide app or book is essential for species identification, which is what birding is mostly about.

After that, the rest of the “stuff” (e.g., spotting scope, eBird, recordings of bird song) are optional but can also be very useful. Watch out for birding, because it can easily become very addictive and destroy healthy relationships!

“What the heck are birds of prey doing in the city?” Well, what the heck are you and I doing in the city? Eating, sleeping, reproducing, working, learning, and having fun.

Cooper’s Hawks nest in trees, and, like other “accipiters”, are particularly adept at dodging obstacles to catch small birds.

Peregrine Falcons nest on cliffs (tall buildings with ledges will do) and are really fast, chasing down small birds in flight and punching them out of the air.

“Is birding like birdwatching?” Same thing. The word “birding” is often used instead of “birdwatching” because it is shorter and allows for the use of identifying birds by sound. Competitive birders (remember the 2011 movie The Big Year?) may identify as many as 75% of their birds for the year, or for the day during a “big day”, only by sound.

Each species has its own song, as do most frogs (perhaps more on them in a future article). This means that considerable species identification can be done at night without seeing anything.

“Okay, so I’ve identified that noisy red bird that seems to hang around all winter as a Northern Cardinal. Now what?.

Enjoy the sound, for it was a rare sound in Ottawa 30 years ago. Or, identify more bird sounds, like that annoying drumming of a Downy Woodpecker on a nearby metal chimney.

Before you know it, you have a species list, to which you might want to add more species. Now you see a bird in another part of the city, so you decide to keep a yard list and an Ottawa list. Then you’re on a work trip in Tucson Arizona and see a bird that doesn’t seem to occur in Ottawa. You’ve now got 3 birds on your “life list”.

Next time we’ll talk about how birds connect us to nature and what we can do if we want to know more about birds than just how to identify them.

Conservation Biologist Robert Alvo is the author of “Being a Bird in North America” ( He has an extensive list of scientific accomplishments and the generosity to share his learning with all those interested in birds and birding. Newswest is pleased to welcome, as a regular column, Robert’s observations on nature, conservation, and the environment.

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