The Art of Bird Watching
Imagine yourself in the thick of Mystery Island Jungle. It’s 5amNST on the 20th day of Eating, and the sun’s light is spreading over the horizon. During that magical time, thousands of bird petpets take to the sky. They depart northward on their path to find food, friends, and start a family of their very own. These intrepid explorers battle fatigue, starvation, and predation in the name of a better life, then return to our shores in the fall before the clutches of winter rip their once abundant food source away.
These creatures exhibit Fascinating Behaviors , impress us with their repertoire of chirps, chips, songs, and squawks, and fascinate the thousands of Neopians who would call themselves “birders” as a brand of their devotion. Note that Neopia offers a range of flying creatures beyond avian Petpets. Many birders are thrilled to watching these Petpets as well, as they can offer a wealth of amazing and colorful displays; for simplicity, I have chosen to focus solely on bird Petpets for this article.
Bird watching is an incredibly rewarding hobby for Neopians of all ages. Once you’ve caught the birding bug, it’s hard to stop! You’ll see spectacular diversity, travel throughout many worlds, meet others who share in your passions, and explore new places; boredom is rarely an issue once you have a pair of binoculars around your neck. With that in mind, watching avian petpets can be daunting for a new birder. I will detail below some ways in which you can get started in the bird watching process and the joys of citizen science. In another article, I will discuss the migration phenomena, and tell you the best places to bird watch in Neopia (as well as other flying petpet species you can expect to discover).
First things first: binoculars. This simple-seeming yet elegant tool opens your world to an entirely new perspective. With one of these in paw, nature is no longer distant—it is intimate. But choosing the right kind of binoculars can be daunting. Prices range from under 1000 Neopoints to well over 100,000 Neopoints, and vary in the quality of the image. I find a mid-range pair is good for a beginner (approximately 10,000 Neopoints) as they avoid some of the challenges faced with cheaper binoculars like physical bulk and object clarity. Cheaper binoculars also use cheaper glass, and it shows. As the magnification increases, so does the need for thicker glass. If the materials used to create this glass are low quality, the image will also be poor.
Looking at your binoculars, you’ll notice that every pair has two numbers written on its side. The typical format will look something like this: 10 x 40. The first number corresponds to the level of magnification. This is how much closer (in this case, 10 times closer) you can see the bird when compared to the naked eye. At first glance, buying a pair of binoculars with the highest magnification available may seem like a cut and dry choice, but this also has a fair share of setbacks. Higher magnification also means a more focused field of view (you see less of an area), and magnifications that are 10X and above can accentuate the movement of one’s paws. If your paws shake like mine do, it can be difficult to maintain a crisp and clear image in the field without a tripod to steady the view.
The second number represents the objective lens size. When I say objective lens, I refer to the larger lens opposite of where you place your eyes (those are called the ocular lenses). The larger the objective lens size, the more light is let in. This works in conjunction with your magnification and produces what we call an “exit pupil.” That’s the little light you see when you look at the ocular lens—that light enters your eyes and makes an image. The way you determine the exit pupil is by dividing the lens size (in this example, 40) by the magnification size, 10. The exit pupil is 4mm (millimeters). What does that mean exactly? Let’s down the mechanics of your eye.
When it’s light outside, the pupil of your eye contracts to about 2mm. On a bright day, more light is sent to the eye, and your pupil doesn’t need to be wide open to create an image. When it’s dark outside, your pupil expands to around 5mm; it must be open wider because there’s less light to draw from. If you want to see clearly with the binoculars, your exit pupil should exceed your eye’s natural pupil size. In other words, most binoculars are designed so that you can see just fine during the day (x-no tags here-2mm), but if you want to see better in dim conditions, you’ll want a larger exit pupil (so a pair of 8 x 40 would have an exit pupil size of 5, which is sufficient to see in dimmer conditions).
How do I tell one bird apart from another?
Once you have a good pair of binoculars, it’s time to go into the field. You may be a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of individuals in flight, but the best way to tease apart these organisms is by process of elimination. You’ll want to look for patterns of size, shape, color, and behavior, as different groups of birds have a pattern of appearance that can help differentiate them from similar species.
Let’s start with a bird Petpet’s size and shape. Some Petpets are large and assuming, with impressive silhouettes, while others are small and petite. Perhaps the best-known group stems from Krawk Island: all their bird Petpets have large, pronounced stomachs, broad wings, and well-pronounced, large feet (yes, even Weewoos. They tuck their wings in, but they are in fact impressive fliers). In contrast, Tyrannian Petpets like the Skree and Airax are sleek, with long bills and highly feathered tails.
Pirate Petpet examples:
Tyrannian Petpet examples:
Other species such as the Vullard are long-necked, stout, and known for soaring over hills and mountains, riding the air currents (thermals) in search for food. These Petpets are designed to eat carrion, and will circle the Neopian skies to find it. Vullards have no feathers on their heads to prevent their food from sticking to it, and are one of the few species in Neopia with an advanced sense of smell. These birds are also known to fight over food, and can be rather “grumpy” when too many Neopians crowd to watch them.
If anyone has ever said, “don’t touch a baby bird Petpet or their parents will abandon it,” worry not. Most species have an awful sense of smell, and are okay with you placing their fuzzy baby back into the nest. If, however, their babies are fully feathered, leave them be. Their parents are nearby and watching out for them; most fledglings (those that leave the nest) spend some time on the ground before they can fully fly.
Some species, like the Quintilc, have a characteristically long tail, and are known to perch on dead snags or railings. These species are particularly tolerant to humans, and will often eat from a bird feeder near its nesting site. In rare cases, Neopians have trained the Petpet to eat straight out of their paw! Their nests are known to be small, and consist of beech tree bark, paper, and other flat materials.
Take note of any and all field marks (unique, distinctive physical features) among species to form a positive ID. If a bird has a particularly bright set of flight feathers (lower half of the wing) or colorful body like the Piraket, it can be easier to eliminate other options and leave you with the correct bird.
Tools of the Trade
The next best feature to note is a bird’s tool set: their beak. Some beaks are designed for eating berries and seeds, others Petpetpets, fish, or aquatic Petpets. Think of the beak as a kind of appliance.
A Darblat’s bill is thick and chunky. It acts like a clamp designed for straining out water and catching food whole. Fun fact: the insides of their mouths are lined with rear-facing spines to trap their prey.
Compare that to a Beekadoodle, whose thin, petite bill acts like a soda straw; these friendly creatures slurp up nectar from flowers, pollinating your gardens as they flit from flower to flower. These Petpets must eat almost continuously to fuel their incredibly high cost of living or metabolic rate.
Unlike both of the previous birds, the Vaeolus is a fierce predator. Take note of the Petpet’s curved bill and talons. The flames on its wings are unique to this species alone; scientists have hypothesized that they’re used to startle prey when flashed, making capture easier.
Tomamu are widely known as the “Menace of Breadfish Ponds” because of their voracious appetite for fish, both wild and domesticated. Their bills act like spears and are highly effective for grabbing prey. In urbanized area, this Petpet will often beg for fish from fishermen… or wander Neopian fish markets.
Identifying the Song with the Songster
Learning the basics of bird song can be very useful for solidifying your ID. Most of the time, you’ll hear a bird long before you see it, especially in thick jungles or forests. Many species were named after their calls. Perhaps the most famous of these is the beloved Neopian Times mascot, the Weewoo. This species will often perch near their nesting grounds and sing a haunting “WeeeeWoooo” call late into the evening. Some have been recorded at night.
Some species only have males sing, some only females, and some both. Perhaps the most famous female only singer is the Skree. Their metallic screech rings clearly over the mountains of Tyrannia and can carry for well over a mile. Once you can recognize their song, it is hard to forget. Many Skree sing during spring mornings from the 1st day of Hunting to the 31st day of Relaxing. Their nests are built into the cliffsides of Tyrannian mountains, and are often watched by multiple generations of their family. Her song is best known as a territorial defense. It’s as if she’s saying, “this is our nesting grounds, everyone else, stay back!”
One of the species best known for its singing males is the Naleap. His song sounds like a haunted xylophone. Because of the way in which avian Petpets produce sounds, it is possible for them to harmonize with themselves. They have a syrinx or double voice box to produce sound instead of a larynx or a single voice box. His song is utterly distinctive, and is most often heard in the mist hills of Shenkuu.
The Mallard has a sort of “quack” call that can be terse or extended, the latter sounding a bit like someone laughing. Males and females differ slightly in the tonal quality, with females sounding a bit squeakier than males. Look for this species in wetlands, swamps, and ponds. This species, like many other Petpets, rarely vary their song. Others, like the Crokabek, are known to mimic sounds and string them together between caws.
Just what is Citizen Science and how do I get involved?
Once you have a grasp over the basics of birding, why not extend your findings to the advancement of scientific knowledge? Your day-to-day observations can be critical keys in determining long-term population trends, nesting locations, and behavior. Citizen Science, or the detailed observations of enthusiastic birders such as yourselves, often focus on the number of birds seen at any given time, the species identity of the bird, and the nesting habits of the birds when available. This data can be submitted to local universities such as BVU (Brightvale University), MDU (Meridell University), MISA (Mystery Island College of Science and Art), and UUU (Ugga Ugga University). There we can compile the information and produce maps and charts that local nature centers distribute and discuss.
Depending on your location there are annual events such as the Celebration Bird Count that compile the data of winter resident birds or the Great Feeder Bird Count which takes note of every bird that visits your feeders in a specific time frame. These counts are massive, single day efforts to collect a more complete picture of bird habitat and location. In many cases, local nature centers or preserves will offer public counts to increase the reach and accuracy of their data.
Birding in Neopia can be a highly rewarding and enjoyable experience. Not only can we enjoy the bright and vivid colors of our bird species, but also their behaviors and songs. In our next installment, we will discuss the mysteries of migration, amazing places to bird in Neopia, and bird watching etiquette.
I hope that you found this guide to be both informative and enjoyable, but until next time, happy birding!
Brightvale University Alumna 2016