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Learning to identify birds isn't difficult. Roger Tory Peterson came up with a foolproof system in his classic Field Guide to Birds.

The birds are not arranged in systematic or phylogenetic order, as in most ornithological works. They are grouped into eight visual categories:

1) Swimmers _ ducks and duck-like birds.

2) Aerialists _ gulls and gull-like birds.

3) Long-legged waders _ Herons, cranes, etc.

4) Smaller waders _ plovers, sandpipers, etc.

5) Fowl-like birds _ grouse, quail, etc.

6) Birds of prey _ Hawks, eagles, owls.

7) Nonpasserine land birds _ pigeons, cuckoos, woodpeckers and more.

8) Passerine (perching birds) _ swallows, crows, wrens and more.

Once a birder learns the basic groupings, Peterson suggests a series of basic questions can be asked to help identify birds.

+ What is the bird's size?

+ What is its shape?

+ What shape are its wings?

+ What shape is its bill?

+ What shape is its tail?

+ How does it behave?

+ Does it climb trees?

+ How does it fly?

+ Does it swim?

+ Does it wade?

+ What are its field marks?

+ What is the tail pattern?

+ Is there a rump patch?

+ Are there eye-stripes or eye-rings?

+ Are there wing bars?

+ Are there wing patterns?

Armed with these questions and a field guide, bird identification becomes more of a game than a science.

Peterson's Guide to Eastern Birds is published by Houghton Mifflin for $15.95.