How do I learn the names of plants and animals?
May 1, 2007 11:38 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn the names of plants and animals, particularly trees and birds?

Are there any good (preferably visually-oriented) books or websites that make it easy to learn the names of all the beautiful things I see outside? I know the basics: squirrel, blue jay, mosquito, maple tree; but the less common flora and fauna perplex me.

If it helps, I'm in the northeastern U.S.
posted by monsterhero to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There are tons. Best way to find one you like is to go to the book store and look in the nature section, they usually have ID guides by type (birds, reptiles, plants, etc.). They tend to be pretty expensive but a good one is very nice to have.
posted by anaelith at 12:10 PM on May 1, 2007

You want field guides: Birds and Trees.
posted by scratch at 12:12 PM on May 1, 2007

I'd like to know about this too and am in the same region - any specific book recommendations would be welcome.
posted by widdershins at 12:13 PM on May 1, 2007

I've had pretty good luck with the Peterson's Guides for trees, although I'm sure that any reputable guide will suit you well. If you've never looked at one, they are arranged as a sort of decision tree, where you look at the leaf and the branch and by narrowing down your choices based on morphology and other characteristics, you eventually end up with one or two candidates. You can then read the descriptions and make your final choice.

Trees are pretty easy, because they just stand there while you do the flipping back and forth in the book, I imagine birds would be more difficult. Even so, it takes a couple of trips around the park for me to reliably identify different specimens of the same species. It's pretty cool, though.
posted by OmieWise at 12:26 PM on May 1, 2007

Fandex guides to trees and birds.
posted by fidelity at 12:30 PM on May 1, 2007

I like the National Geographic Guide to Birds, and also the Sibley guide (this a regional guide for Eastern North America - there's a honkin' giant one for the continent, but that's not very useful for carrying around on a hike); my version (for the Western U.S.) is getting pretty worn out.

I have no useful advice for tree guides - I have a couple, but I never carry them with me.

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I first started learning to ID birds was this: look at the whole bird. Before you start noticing what colors it has, or how many wingbars, or what color the legs are (and all can be crucial to making a correct ID), you should know (approximately) what kind of bird it is. So, is it sparrow-like? Jay-like? Shaped kinda like a robin, but isn't a robin? This will help when you open the book and start to look at pictures, since both the NatGeo and Sibley (and most other bird field guides) are arranged taxonomically.

For both birds and trees, though, you can do worse than hook up with your local Audubon group, which probably does guided walks weekly or monthly. Have fun!
posted by rtha at 12:30 PM on May 1, 2007

It helps to have the potential answers pre-filtered, so I find that it's nice to have a field guide that's specific to your area (something along the lines of "Trees/Birds of Minnesota" in my case). That way you're not sorting through hundreds of answers that are impossible due to your location.

I got a tree identification book for Christmas last year. It's a tall, narrow thing bound with a grommet-ish plastic piece at the bottom, so the pages... spin, rather than flip. (I hope that makes sense!) Anyway, each page is for one species of tree, and the top of the page is a representation of the leaf of that tree, in the right shape and everything. It's easy to pick out the one you want because the leaf shapes are all poking out at the top of the book. I wish I could find a link, this explanation isn't going well at all, but hopefully you get the idea.
posted by vytae at 12:59 PM on May 1, 2007

not sure where you're located in the northeast, but universities frequently have greenhouses which label all the plants. I spent hours in them in college despite having no valid academic reason to be there -- just the same reason you are interested. i am thinking specifically smith college which incidentally labels ALL trees and most plants on the whole campus, being a campus-wide arboreum. there are many rare or unique plants and trees there. since leaving school i've felt the void of not finding a little plaque giving me the vital stats of the flora i was viewing and bought several tree/plant ID books which come in pocket sizes and accompany me frequently when i leave the house. they work okay.
posted by Soulbee at 1:04 PM on May 1, 2007

When I was a little lad, I always enjoyed looking at this book, and I'm happy to see that there is a new edition.

It's Readers Digest, so it doesn't have everything you could possibly find in it, but it does have the plants/animals that are commonly seen.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:43 PM on May 1, 2007

I'll second scratch--the Audubon series is an excellent reference for birds, trees, mammals, etc. The complete listing from the Audubon Society itself is here--they have more than just birds and trees. (Amazon has probably all of them for sale.) These books have pictures as the first section, to give you something to compare to, and all the details about the animal or plant in the back. I've used them for years, and I'm from the northeastern US.

One good way to identify help identify birds is to get a bird feeder and put it near a window, so you can see the small ones up close--they'll be easier to look up, and once you're familiar with them, you'll be able to identify them more easily out in the woods. This will also help you identify squirrels.

(And for what it's worth...there are a number of varieties of both squirrels and maples, many of which can look very different.)
posted by Upton O'Good at 3:23 PM on May 1, 2007

Look around your area for a nature center. Sometimes they have free handouts that will identify the trees and plants along a particular marked trail. You may also find a gift shop with local guides, or opportunities for classes or guided hikes.

That will give you a great start to the local fauna. Places I've been to in the Northeast are the VIC center in the Adirondacks, the Robert Moses Park on the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Arboretum in D.C., and the Montshire Museum in Vermont. Have fun!
posted by saffry at 3:51 PM on May 1, 2007

You might see if there is a Master Naturalist program in your area. They provide training on regional flora, fauna and native ecosystems, usually as an outreach of college extension services. The University of Florida started one of the earliest programs, and I enjoyed it immensely. You get time in the field with trained interpreters and oodles of printed information.
posted by cephalopodcast at 6:36 PM on May 1, 2007

Get a field guide, then go on a field trip with the local Audubon Society chapter. The leaders and the knowledgeable ones in the group do a great job of pointing out field marks, helping you with bird songs/calls, or even naming that flower you've always wondered about.

FWIW, we love our Sibley Guide for birds (had the Nat'l Geographic one before, which is also good), and we have the Peterson guides to wildflowers and trees.
posted by DakotaPaul at 9:40 PM on May 1, 2007

Welcome to the best hobby in the world.

I'd definitely try a local nature center and local chapters of groups like the Audubon Society to see what they can teach you firsthand and what guides they recommend. Audubon guides are always good, as are the others mentioned here.

For general reference for groups that are popular to ID (birds, trees, wildflowers), I like eNature. It's a great quick reference. In the end though, nothing beats tromping around with a local naturalist pointing things out to you to get you started. Plus it's fun.
posted by Tehanu at 8:28 PM on May 10, 2007

« Older How to advertise widget contest?   |   What would Steve Austin have listened to? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.