January 7, 2016

Bird Identification Basics

So now you have placed a bird feeder or two, and you bought a pair of binoculars and a field guide. What next? Identifying your first birds, of course! You will notice that many birds have obvious markings that are easy to recognize with experience.

Field Notes

It is prudent to take a small journal with you into the field so that if you can’t identify a bird right away, you can consult your field notes later to help you make the identification. There are several key factors to consider that will help you narrow down the possibilities. Drawing a sketch of the bird’s outline and shape can be a very helpful visual tool to use in later identification. Experienced birders use the Four Keys suggested by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology  to make identification easy.

Size and Shape

What is the general size of the bird? Judging whether your bird is larger or smaller than a sparrow, a robin, or a crow will help narrow it down. What is the shape of its silhouette? Hawks are often too far away to see color patterns, but will always leave a nice silhouette that is useful for determining the species. Oftentimes the bird’s posture, tail-shape, and head-shape can give its identity away. Distinguishing the shape of its bill is one of the best methods of identification. While there might not be reliable objects near the bird to use in judging its relative size, you can use the size of the bird’s body parts against itself. For example, you could estimate how long the bird’s beak is in relation to its head.

Note the bird's general size and shape. Photo Credit: Andreas Plank*
Bird Anatomy Terms

Color Patterns

What are the primary colors of the bird, and where are they located on its body? It is better to note the general color pattern instead of trying to match all the details to a picture in your field guide. An American Robin is darkly colored everywhere except its distinctive rufous breast. What coloration is on the top of the head, the throat, cheeks, breast, wings, and tail? Are these colors light or dark, bold or faint? Notice any streaks or patches of color – they will narrow down the potential options. The bright white throat and yellow lores of a white-throated Sparrow (below) are key identifying features of this bird.

Bird Behavior

Make note of where the bird is foraging. Was it on the ground, under shrubs, perched in a tree, or flying over a field or pond? How was it foraging? Was it picking fruit or seeds from the stem or was it probing mud with its bill? A bird’s posture is also a great identifier, helping to distinguish it from other birds of similar size. Does the bird lean forward close to the branch or is it sitting stiff and upright? While observing the bird, try to gain an impression of its attitude. Does it seem jumpy and nervous, or is it confidently exploring the area? These behaviors will help differentiate species that are similar in size and color pattern. Finally, watch its movement to find clues, like tail-flicking, head-movements, diving or tipping-up in the case of ducks in water, or whether it hops or walks along the ground. Flight patterns are another great tool to help with identification.

Killdeer pretend to be injured to distract nest-predators.
Great Blue Herons are found in water-wetlands, streams, and ponds.


It is believed that birds, like other animals, make purposeful decisions of what habitats to use in their area. That is, they “chose” to live in habitats that make it easier for them to find food, mates, and to raise their offspring. Some species prefer woods, while others prefer wetlands or fields. Consult a species' range-map to determine what species are even possible to find in your area at different times of year. The eBird database is a great tool for keeping a watch for specific species that arrive for a short time each year before proceeding further in their migration. Know the habitat your target bird prefers. Many birds can be found using a range of habitats, while others are restricted to one. Do your homework, and you will increase the odds of finding that elusive bird.

Bird Songs and Calls

An excellent method of identifying birds is learning their songs. This is easier during the spring and summer, when birds are breeding and males are stating their territorial claim. Some birds, like the Eastern and Western Meadowlark, can be more easily identified by their song than their field markings, which are very similar. With time, you will pick up the more subtle identifying characteristics of each species. Most birds' songs are very distinct, making them very reliable cues for identification. In addition, you can identify birds that might be hiding in vegetation that obscures them from view. Birding apps are especially useful because you can reference birdsong while in the field. It can be useful to listen to birdsong recordings at home to hone your skills before taking to the field.

Mnemonics are also useful tools for remembering which song belongs to which bird. Mnemonics are combinations of words that some people hear in birds' songs to help them remember which species sings them. For example, Whip-poor-wills are named for their mnemonic, because their songs sounds like the words "whip poor will." Eastern Wood-Pewees are so named because of their plaintive "peee-weeeee" song. Others think that Tufted Titmice say "peter peter peter." Even if the words you associate with a bird's song are silly, if it helps you remember which bird sings it, it's doing the trick.




*Bird silhouette image credit to Andreas Plank, Creative Commons License 3.0.