The current exercise on VTBird List Serve asking people to name their candidate for the Avian Beauty Contest, reminds me of an exercise which ran through the birding blogs a few years ago. It asked birders to list their ten favorite birds.
I tried to make such a list of my ten favorite birds, but quickly realized that it was an impossible exercise. I started with some obvious birds - like the Wood Duck or Harlequin Duck, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak or the Blackburnian Warbler. But then I had to admit that I could choose ten species from among the waterfowl alone. The Rose-breasted’s family includes the cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting, all of which merit a place on the list of my ten favorite birds. Among the warblers there are at least twenty species that belong among that list of ten.
The birds already mentioned jump out because of the beauty of their plumage, but that means having to skip over other criteria which are just as compelling for a favorite bird - such as the loquacity of the wrens, the acrobatic agility of the nuthatches, the aeronautic ability of the hummingbirds, the patience of the stalking heron, or the intelligence of the raven.
So I wondered if there might be a way to refine this list making. Could I make a list limited to the ten birds whose songs were my favorite songs? I began by listing the thrushes: Wood and Hermit Thrush, Veery, and for all of its familiarity, the robin. Then I added the mimics: mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, and Gray Catbird. The ethereal Common Loon needs to be on the list. There were four or five wrens that had to make the cut. The Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, and American Goldfinch deserve consideration. I love the Eastern Towhee’s “drink your teeee” and the White-throated Sparrow’s haunting “pooooor sam peabody peabody peabody.”
Even limiting the list to favorite songsters was getting impossible. How about intelligence? Could I make a list of my ten favorite and most intelligent birds? That was almost too easy. The Corvids are, hands down, the most intelligent birds: jays, magpies, crows, and ravens. There are nineteen species of Corvids in Kaufman’s guide, but only four in New England: Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, and in the boreal forests an occasional Gray Jay. Remarkable intelligence among birds, just as with other higher species, is remarkable for its rarity. Listing favorite species based upon their intelligence almost seems a no-brainer.
A more manageable exercise might be the listing of my ten favorite feeder birds - those who enjoy the copious amounts of free food that I put out for them. This pares the list of choices down to about thirty-five species, and some of those can be quickly eliminated: pigeon, House Sparrow, cowbird, and starling. The list will start off with the most colorful species (or more precisely, the most colorful males): Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and Northern Cardinal. I would like to include the Baltimore Oriole on this list, but I have never succeeded in enticing one to any feeder, although I have put out oranges until they turned black with mold. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird makes the list, as does the Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and the Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches. The Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers with their acrobatics on the suet feeder and their faithful presentation of their young every year for my inspection are a part of this list. And how can I discriminate among the sparrows which visit or stay during the year: White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Chipping, and Song.
Do you see the problem? I’ve got sixteen feeder birds on my list of ten, and I haven’t even included the goldfinch whose flocks take flight from the August lawn as though the sun were exploding.
I feel badly that I haven’t yet found a place for the Mourning Dove on the list of favorite feeder birds. Any creature that could fly south to warmer climes but elects to stay through our Vermont winters is worthy of inclusion.
Nor have I yet mentioned the Sharp-shinned Hawk whose hunting forays through the feeder birds provide drama, excitement, and a glimpse of the life and death struggles from which our modern lifestyles are so insulated.
Perhaps a manageable exercise might be to list my favorite families of birds. Classification of birds is a fluid, every changing science, but at present there are about seventy-seven bird families represented in North America. I haven’t finalized my list, but here are some early entrants, and I am limiting myself at this time to the Passeriformes, or perching birds. On the following list, I indicate the number of North American species in the family, and a few representatives of the family which put the family on my list of favorities.
Corvidae: jays, magpies, crows, ravens - 18 species, including Blue Jay and Common Raven
Paridae: tits - 11 species, including Black-capped Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse
Trogolodytidae: wrens - 9 species, including House Wren, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren
Parulidae: wood warblers - 51 species, with too many prime representatives to list
Cardinalidae: cardinal & grosbeaks - 10 species, including Northern Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting
Iceteridae: blackbirds - 23 species, including Baltimore Oriole, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and many other candidates, but unfortunately also including the Brown-headed Cowbird.
Tyrannidae: tyrant flycatchers - 35 species, including Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Kingbird
Mimidae: mockingbirds and thrashers - 10 species, including Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher and Gray Catbird.
In choosing my favorite families of birds, I have not yet weighed the loons, waterfowl, waders, terns, or shorebirds, so I still have a lot of work to do.
In the foregoing paragraphs, I’ve mentioned at least forty-five species, some more than once. Some readers have probably groaned at some of the species I’ve included, while other readers are undoubtedly irate that I have overlooked some species.
And maybe I shouldn’t bother with this exercise anymore. I think I have figured out what my ten favorite birds are ... they are the last ten birds which passed through my field of view.
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This post is one of fifty-two random essays on birds and birdwatching which you can find in “Tails of Birding.”
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