Frequently Asked Questions About Birds and Birding

by Rex Rowan

(Last updated November 2022 by Anne Casella)

Which field guide should I buy?
What’s the best way to feed birds?
What plants should go in my yard if I want to attract birds and other wildlife?
Can you give me more information on feeding hummingbirds?
How many birds are there?
Why are birds banded?
Are there laws related to harming birds?
What is this bird and why is it doing what it is doing? (Local Bird Life)
What are the best birding magazines?
What birding organizations should I join?
Are there other good birding resources?
What’s the capital of Kentucky?


Which field guide should I buy?

This is a trick question, because you shouldn’t buy a field guide, you should buy two or three field guides. Here are our recommendations for beginners (non-beginners don’t need our advice):

1. Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman (2000) is the one to carry in the field. It’s uncomplicated, organized with beginners in mind, and the easiest to handle as a physical object (see comparative table below). It’s the only field guide that successfully uses photos instead of paintings. Maps are easy to read and unusually informative, text is concise and intelligent. Birds are grouped as a beginner might perceive them: the cranes are with the herons because they look like herons; the coots and loons are next to the ducks because they’re all swimming birds, etc.

In addition to Kaufman, the beginner should have one or both of the following as secondary references providing more detailed information. Keep them at home or carry them in the car.

2. The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley (2000) is considered by many to be the best North American field guide. It offers an abundance of detail, which is bewildering to some (but a feast to others!): different age classes, geographical variations, dark and light forms, worn and fresh plumages, spread wings from above and below. Birds are grouped by taxonomic family rather than physical resemblance, but within the family they may be paired on the page with look-alike species rather than their closest relatives. Sibley’s illustrations are excellent; descriptive text is scattered among them in label form. Unfortunately the book is physically unwieldy (see table below) and it should probably stay at home or in the car.

2a. An alternative to the above is The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America (2003), which is only marginally bigger than Kaufman’s book (though thicker and less flexible) and which cuts down on detail by restricting itself to birds found east of the Rockies – which means every species ever recorded in Alachua County save Vaux’s Swift. Illustrations are carried over from the larger guide but have been pared down to two or three per species. A short paragraph provides additional identification help and some natural history details not found in the larger guide.

3. National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America (fourth edition, 2002) Many birders maintain that this, not Sibley, is the best North American field guide. Illustrations are by a variety of artists and range from more or less competent to superb. Text is often more detailed than in other guides, particularly on difficult groups such as jaegers and variable species such as Red-tailed Hawk. Not as unwieldy as Sibley, but still large enough to be a bit awkward.

Comparative Size of Field Guides


Dimensions (inches)

Weight (pounds)


7.5 x 4.5



9.75 x 6.5


Sibley (East)

7.75 x 4.75


National Geographic

8 x 5


Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America (fifth edition, 2002) is a sentimental favorite because it was the original field guide (first edition 1934) and older birders can still remember when it was the only one on the market. Birds were pictured with look-alikes to facilitate comparison, as in Kaufman’s book above, but until the revision of 1980 the illustrations were in one place and the text in another, and there were no maps. Organization is now by family rather than physical resemblance, which is less helpful to beginners, illustrations are less detailed than in other guides, and maps do not show migratory routes. In its day this guide was a revelation; now it has been superceded.

All the above are general guides covering all the birds of a geographic region. More detailed guides are devoted to particular groups of birds, for instance Steve Howell’s Hummingbirds of North America: The Photographic Guide (2002) and Brian Wheeler’s Raptors of Eastern North America(2003).

There is also a growing number of video guides, for example “Hawk Watch: A Video Guide to Eastern Raptors,” the highly-praised “Watching Warblers: A Video Guide to the Warblers of Eastern North America,” and Jon L. Dunn’s Advanced Birding Video Series, which at this point (September 2004) includes three videotapes, two on large and small gulls respectively and the third on hummingbirds.


What’s the Best Way to Feed Birds?

Most bird lovers put up a feeder in the yard. There are ways to make this a more interesting and enjoyable endeavor.

First, the seed. Commercial “Wild Bird Seed” as sold in grocery stores contains much waste grain. I once spent three evenings separating the good from the bad in one cup of this stuff, seed by seed – what the birds would eat into one jar, what they would toss aside into another. The waste material – which included a large number of small rocks! – made up about 60% of the feed’s bulk. So, although it’s cheap, it’s not much of a deal. Better to buy a bag of black-oil sunflower seed and a bag of white proso millet from Wild Birds Unlimited, from a feed store or from Lowe’s. You can be successful with just these and you may not need the millet; black-oil sunflower (be sure to get the black-oil variety) is eaten by just about everything – American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, and House Finches among others. Doves and smaller birds such as sparrows and buntings prefer the millet. One very successful bird-feeder had great success with a “throw-down mix” of millet and cracked corn distributed around the shrubby edges of his yard. To attract Eastern Bluebirds, provide mealworms which are also eaten by Baltimore Orioles and other desirable birds. Providing grape jelly attracts Baltimore Orioles although you may need to be patient and persistent in providing this food source. Once the Orioles find you though, they will return year after year.

The kind of feeder you choose will partially determine the birds you get. If your platform feeder is raided by grackles or starlings, try a tubular feeder, since its perches are usually too small for those birds. On the other hand, platform feeders and seed spread on the ground are more likely to bring in doves, sparrows, juncos, and buntings. The greater the variety of presentations, the greater the variety of birds.

Place your feeders where you can enjoy them, but don’t place them too far away from cover. Birds don’t like feeling exposed.

Suet, much in use in colder climes, tends to go bad in Florida’s warmer winters. Use the following recipe instead. Mix 1 cup lard (shortening can be used, but it doesn’t work as well), 2 cups yellow or plain white corn meal, 1 tbsp. sugar, and 1/2 cup peanut butter. Add more corn meal as needed until the mix can be rolled into little balls. Fill a pine cone with it and hang the pine cone near the feeder, using a length of string or fishing line. Or drill one-inch holes in a fallen branch, pack the holes with the mix, and hang the branch. This will often attract non-seed-eating birds like Yellow-throated Warblers. If you have trouble with squirrels eating the mix, reduce the amount of peanut butter until they stop.

Squirrels are a perennial problem at seed feeders as well. Several solutions are possible. If a feeder is placed on a post at a sufficient distance from the nearest tree, a five-foot-long piece of PVC pipe can be slipped over the post to keep the squirrels from climbing up. If a feeder hangs from a wire between two trees, two or three 2-liter soda bottles with holes drilled in the bottom can be threaded onto the wire on either side of the feeder. Since the squirrels spin off the bottles whenever they try to reach the feeder, this strategy has some entertainment value as well. Do be sure to string the wire high enough that the squirrels can’t jump up onto the feeder; I thought having the bottom of the feeder three feet off the ground was high enough, but it wasn’t! Four feet ought to do the trick. Baffles can be very successful but purchase the longer and wider raccoon baffles to be certain of success.

Water is an important feature of your backyard feeding station, maybe the most important (if only because it will attract such a wide variety of non-seed-eating birds). As with feeders, your water source, be it bird bath or mister or sprinkler, should be near cover. Birds like moving water, so a mister or sprinkler dripping into a bird bath is especially attractive.

A useful web site is Your Florida Backyard’s bird feeding page.

And of course there’s a wealth of information on seeds, feeders, houses, and other backyard-birding stuff from the folks behind the counter at Wild Birds Unlimited.


What plants should go in my yard if I want to attract birds and other wildlife?

This subject is covered in a number of books, a selection of which is listed immediately below. Highly recommended, and perhaps to be read before any of them, is Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards by Sara Stein.

The National Wildlife Federation’s Guide to Gardening for Wildlife, Craig Tufts and Peter Loewer

National Audubon Society Bird Garden, Stephen W. Kress

Stokes Bird Gardening Book, Donald and Lillian Stokes

Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens, Thomas Pope

Birdscaping Your Garden, George Martin Adams

Gardening for Birds, Thomas G. and Thomas C. Barnes

Let me emphasize that this is only a selection. During an August 2000 visit to Books-A-Million, I found ten additional titles.

It’s probably unnecessary to say here what you’ll find repeated in every book or web site listed, but I’ll touch on the basics. In general, then, anyone wishing to attract wild creatures to his or her yard needs to provide them food, shelter, and water. Landscaping with an intelligent selection of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers can meet the first two of these requirements. Property borders are good places to plant trees that produce berries (e.g., Wild Cherry, Red Mulberry) and other edible seeds (e.g., oaks, pines, elms). Putting a row of shrubs – Yaupon and Waxmyrtle are both good – below these trees provides food, cover, and nesting sites for several of our local birds, such as Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, and Northern Cardinals. And raking your dead leaves under these shrubs and letting them disintegrate there (rather than bagging them and putting them out on the curb) will attract the insects and other small animals these birds eat and feed to their young. Wildflowers and flowering vines can attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and of course you can provide those butterflies with host-plants for their caterpillars. If you want to know what kinds of wildflowers to plant, what kinds of shrubs, what kinds of trees. . .do a little clicking on the sites below.

The National Wildlife Federation maintains a comprehensive web-page on their Backyard Habitat Program.

Sites with Florida-specific information:

Your Florida Backyard Wildlife Gardening Page

Your Florida Backyard Bird Gardening Page

Marc and Maria Minno’s Butterfly Gardening Page

Your Florida Backyard Butterfly Gardening Page


Can you give me more information on feeding hummingbirds?

What do I feed them?

Hummingbirds survive very well on their own, thank you, drinking flower nectar and eating minute insects. But you can attract them to your yard by hanging out a commercial hummingbird feeder filled with sugar-water. You can make the sugar-water very easily: mix a cup of water and a cup of granular white sugar (never use honey) in a saucepan, boil it to dissolve the sugar, then add three cups of cold water (for a 4-to-1 water-to-sugar mixture). Once hummers are coming to your feeder habitually, reduce the concentration of the mixture to 6-to-1 (by adding five cups of cold water to the boiled solution). This will minimize the possibility of liver damage to the birds, and will keep them interested in natural food sources. Put the extra sugar-water in a closed container and refrigerate it.

Should I put red food coloring in the nectar?

Don’t bother. Commercial hummingbird “nectar” is often dyed red, but there is no benefit to this. Hummers come to clear sugar-water just as readily.

How often do I change the nectar?

Every two or three days. See the next question.

Should I clean my feeders?

Absolutely. Every two or three days, every week at the very least, scrub the inside of the bottle with a bottle brush (some people fill it with water, add sand or rice as a scouring agent, and shake it), and rinse with hot running water. If you leave the sugar-water out much longer than three days, it ferments and produces a mold fatal to hummers.

Should I bring my feeders in for the winter?

Leave them out all year long. After the last Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have flown south in September or October, there’s a fair chance your feeder will attract a Rufous or Black-chinned Hummingbird. These western species winter in Florida in small numbers, and a handful are recorded in Gainesville every fall and winter. Allen’s, Buff-bellied, and Calliope Hummingbirds have also been recorded in Alachua County.

What are some good hummingbird flowers to plant in my yard?

Spring and summer-blooming flowers include Firebush (Hamelia patens), Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), Cross Vine (Bignonia capreolata), Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea), Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Turk’s Cap Mallow (Malvaviscus arboreus), and Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans). Fall-blooming flowers are fewer, but Cypress Vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and Firespike (Odontonema strictum), particularly the last-named, are excellent. Planting your flowers in large groups will more effectively attract the hummers’ attention and will increase the duration of their visits.

There are web sites on attracting hummersfeeding hummers, and hummer feeders.


Why are birds banded?

Occasionally you will see a bird with a small aluminum bracelet around its ankle. If the bird is dead, remove the band, or carefully write down the numbers engraved on it. These numbers, when entered into a computer at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab, will tell where and when the bird was banded. This provides biologists with information on migration and longevity. Report the band, or the numbers, with the date and exact location where the bird was found, at the USGS Bird Banding Lab.

You will receive acknowledgment of your find, and information on when and where the bird was banded.

For additional information, everything in fact you ever wanted to know about banding, check the Bird Banding Lab’s very interesting web site.


Are there laws related to harming birds?

Native birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, with the exception of those which are legal to hunt in season with a license (doves, ducks and geese, quail, and turkey). It is otherwise illegal to kill ANY native birds, including hawks, crows, vultures, Blue Jays, and (alas) Brown-headed Cowbirds. It is also illegal to disturb their nests and eggs.


What is this bird and what is it doing?

There’s this crazy bird that keeps pecking at my window (or my car’s side-view mirror, or my car’s shiny bumper). What gives? How can I stop it?

Women will not be surprised to learn that only male birds engage in this odd practice. Male birds are extremely territorial, and birds in general are not incredibly smart. If a male sees his reflection in a window, he will perceive it to be a rival male (“He is a good-looking devil, though!”) and will promptly attack in an attempt to drive him away. That he runs into glass, that the rival bird never leaves – these facts have no effect on him. The only way to stop him is to make his reflection disappear – put a bag over the side-view mirror, tape some paper or plastic wrap over the window. If the bird simply moves to another window, well, maybe he’ll go away when his hormones calm down this fall.

What is it with those geese? The ones honking over downtown Gainesville every February?

Those aren’t geese, they’re Sandhill Cranes. They arrive in Alachua County in November, and start north again during February. Paynes Prairie is a “staging area,” a place where flocks of cranes that wintered further to the south will stop and feed before continuing north. So when they depart, we see more cranes circling noisily over downtown Gainesville than actually spent the winter here.

I think I saw an eagle. Did I?

Maybe. Due to the presence of several large lakes, notably Newnans, Orange, and Lochloosa, Alachua County is an excellent location for the fish-eating Bald Eagle. In the winter of 1999-2000, for instance, 37 pairs nested here, with another 12 along the south shore of Orange Lake (technically Marion County) and another 2 on the east shore of Lake Santa Fe (technically Putnam County). For some good places to see eagles, return to Local Birding Information on the main page and click on Local Specialties. A few other birds can be mistaken for Bald Eagles. Adult eagles, dark brown with white heads and tails, are unmistakable, but they take four or five years to reach this plumage; immature eagles are generally dark all over, with more or less white, and with white in the “armpits.” Ospreys, which are more common than eagles during the summer months, have a snow-white breast and belly, and a dark tail. Turkey Vultures are all dark, with the trailing half of the wing silver-gray.

What’s that big black woodpecker with the red topknot?

That’s called a Pileated Woodpecker. The name derives from the Latin pilleum, a type of brimless cap worn in ancient Rome – which presumably bore some resemblance to the woodpecker’s topknot.

How common are owls?

Like flying squirrels, a lot more common than you’d expect. Unlike flying squirrels, however, they don’t adapt real well to suburbia, and most of them live in swamps, deep woods, and rural areas. An exception is the Eastern Screech Owl, which is a little bit bigger than a soft drink can. It has no trouble finding the insects and birds it eats in residential areas, and it nests in holes in trees – and also in larger birdhouses.

What happened to the robins? I had a bunch of them in my yard this spring, but I haven’t seen one in months.

Robins fly south for the winter, and Florida’s as south as you can get. The first of the season are usually seen in late October or early November, but they don’t become really obvious until they gang up and invade the residential neighborhoods in January and February, when the berries of the Laurel Cherry and East Palatka Holly are ripe. For a week or two – while the berries hold out – they’re everywhere. Then, rather quickly, they disappear. By April they’ve generally all migrated north for the summer.

A little brown bird is building its nest in a hanging pot on my front porch!

Yup. It’s probably a Carolina Wren, and they do this all the time. It’ll take the eggs about two weeks to hatch, and the young birds should fledge another two weeks after that.


What are the best birding magazines?

Birders are fortunate in having several very attractive and informative magazines devoted to their hobby. No matter what your level of expertise, there’s one for you. Most local bookstores do not carry them; in the course of an August 2000 survey, I found Birder’s World at Borders, Goering’s, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, BirdWatcher’s Digest only at Books-A-Million (in the Art and Travel section!), and WildBird only at the downtown library (and it was an old issue). However, excellent previews are available on the Internet, at the sites given below.

Birdwatcher’s Digest

Level: beginner to intermediate.

About the size of Reader’s Digest but half as thick. Emphasis on bird behavior, attracting birds to the backyard, and the pleasures and surprises of observing and feeding birds, written at the layman’s level. More text than WildBird or Birder’s World.


Living Bird


Level: intermediate to advanced.

This one is not available in stores. You can only get it by joining the American Birding Association; the $45 membership fee ($25 for students) includes 6 issues per year. A magazine of primary interest to “serious” birders, but of interest primarily to serious birders – if you see what I mean. Articles on difficult identification problems, recent taxonomic decisions, birding hotspots around the world, new optics and other equipment, and book reviews, plus a photo quiz.

North American Birds

Level: advanced, irrational, obsessive.

Also not available in stores. You must subscribe through the American Birding Association for $30 per year (4 issues, one each for winter, spring migration, nesting season, and fall migration). This magazine is of interest solely to “serious” birders, and not all of them. Region by region, it lists the season’s unusual sightings. Florida usually has 2-3 pages, while the rest of the magazine is devoted to other states and regions, a continental overview of the season, and one or two feature articles.


What birding organizations should I join?

Alachua County’s only local birding organization is the Alachua Audubon Society. The American Birding Association is worthwhile but has no local chapters. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is awesome. We recommend that all “serious” birders join the Florida Ornithological Society, which holds a statewide conference in some prime birding spot each April and October. The American Bird Conservancy does excellent national and international bird conservation work.

For regional and national organizations, go to Birding and Wildlife Links, then scroll down to Birding and Professional Organizations. Other categories, such as Research Stations, Specialty Groups, and Conservation, also offer links to good organizations, such as the American Bird Conservancy.


Are there other good birding resources?

Wild Birds Unlimited in the Millhopper Shopping Center (NW 43rd Street and NW 16th Boulevard) stocks a wide variety of birdseed, feeders, houses, birdbaths, books, optics, and other bird-related merchandise. Their knowledgeable staff can give you a lot of advice on setting up your back yard to attract birds.

The Alachua County library district has scores of books on birds and birding.

Karen and Jim Ahlers sell high-quality birdhouses, exceptionally well-designed and well-constructed. Prices range from $18 for a bluebird box to $35 for a screech owl box, with several intermediate sizes. They can be reached at (352) 546-3560 (evenings and weekends).

ABA Sales has a wide variety of birding books and other equipment.

There are recordings to help you learn bird sounds. The most useful for this area is “Bird Songs of Florida” by Geoffrey A Keller, available on cassette tape or CD, which contains 111 species ($14.95 from ABA Sales). Also useful is “Sounds of Florida’s Birds,” a cassette tape compiled and narrated by the University of Florida’s former Curator of Birds, J.W. Hardy. This has been available at the Florida Museum of Natural History gift shop. If you doubt your ability to learn bird sounds at all, Richard K. Walton and Robert W. Lawson’s “Birding by Ear” ($25 cassette tape or CD) and Lang Elliott’s “Know Your Bird Sounds” Volumes 1 and 2 (two cassette tapes, $11.95 each) offer a good beginner’s approach.

Believe it or not, there’s even birding software. It falls into two categories: listing and identification. Listing software, such as the Thayer Birder’s Diary ($130 at ABA Sales) and AviSys ($99.95), allows you to enter your sightings, your life birds, your field trips – and then retrieve them in any format you choose: birds seen in 1999, birds seen at Paynes Prairie, birds seen in Florida, all records of White-eyed Vireo, and so on. Identification software, such as the Peterson Multimedia Guide to North American Birds ($64.95) and Thayer’s Birds of North America ($67.50), offers pictures, information, and sounds of hundreds of species on CD-ROM – some software can even give you quizzes to test your knowledge. There’s also bird-sound software, such as AviSys Song ($59.99), which piggy-backs on other identification software, allowing you to organize songs and calls in any way you like – thus you can make yourself a tape of warbler songs, or a tape of a dozen selected shorebird calls that repeats them three times and mixes them up each time around, or an endlessly-repeating tape of an Eastern Screech-Owl with which to attract and/or harass feeding flocks in winter. Many birders have so much fun with this stuff that they lose interest in birds.


What’s the capital of Kentucky?

We get this one all the time. Frankfort.