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How To Identify Birds

House Sparrow on a Branch

How do I identify a bird?

Knowing how to identify a new bird is an essential tool in the birdwatcher’s arsenal. Like many passionate birdwatchers, or “birders,” the feeling of satisfied curiosity may inspire you to take up birding. Even if you only identify the birds that you happen upon in the course of your daily life, a little bit of knowledge can help you understand and appreciate the wildlife around you. The beauty of birding is that, even for the casual birder, it makes you more aware of the natural world, and nurtures a sense of connection and inquisitiveness towards it. Whether you’re a seasoned enthusiast looking to add a new name to your life list, or you just want to identify the colorful new visitor in your garden, these simple tips can help you answer the persistent question: “what kind of bird is this?” If you’re a brand new birder looking for a place to start your hobby, I suggest checking out some of our other helpful articles below!

I’ve just seen a new bird, how do I identify it?

  • Snap a picture! If you want to identify an unknown bird, it’s convenient and helpful to have a reference image. Once you have some possible candidates in mind, you can use your photograph to compare against your list of suspects. Even a low resolution image can convey a ton of useful information. You can usually get a good sense of a bird’s size, shape, and color using a distant image. Unique markings become clearer the better the photograph you take.
  • If you’re a more old-fashioned birdwatcher, you may want to carry a field guide with you. It’s especially useful to use a guide that is specifically focused on the birds that can be seen in your region or location. For a birder in the U.S., a North American field guide will do nicely, but it’s often even better to use a guide that is narrowed down to the individual state or region.
  • For birdwatchers with more modern approaches to the hobby, there are a number of birdwatching apps and websites that can keep track of the information you notice, compare that information to possible candidates, generate lists of likely suspects, and even use photo recognition technology to identify birds that you’ve managed to photograph. Keep in mind, however, that in locations where cell phone reception is poor or uncertain, a good old-fashioned field guide can save the day. A number of birdwatching apps even take the information that you record and send it to groups dedicated to ornithology and conservation. That way, your birdwatching hobby can contribute to the scientific community and allow ornithologists to track migration patterns, breeding activities, and bird populations. Check out some of our recommendations for the best birding apps available here:
  • Whether you use these applications or not, when birding, it’s helpful to carry a notepad of some kind and to take detailed notes. This can be done on your phone if you’d prefer not to use a notepad. You should keep these notes brief, as you never know when your new feathered friend may take wing without letting you finish recording the information that you need. If you can do nothing else, you should try and record eight essential pieces of information so that you may identify your mystery bird. The location of your sighting, the date and time, the group your bird belongs to if this is apparent to you, the color and markings of the bird, its size, its shape, its behavior, and any calls or songs that the bird makes while you’re observing it. With just a few of these details recorded, an ID is usually possible. With more than a few, it’s often quite easy. Be sure to also note any additional details that seem important to you as well, even if you’re not sure that they fit in one of these categories. For more information on birdwatching gear, check out this article:

Where did you see the bird?

Western Meadowlark
Photo by Rogean James Caleffi on Unsplash

The world is full of birds! Once you begin to appreciate them, it becomes impossible to look around without seeing a bird or two. One of the easiest ways you can narrow down the candidates for the bird you’re seeing is to note your location. Many bird identification apps and websites ask for this criterion first. This is because, instead of trying to pick out a bird from a list of all the birds in the world, you’ll generally be working off of a much shorter list of birds that are typically seen in your region. To further narrow this list, the time of the sighting is important.

When did you see the bird?

Many birds are migratory and live in different parts of the world throughout the year. The birds that you can spot in the dead of winter will vary greatly from those that will visit when summer arrives. Once your list has been narrowed down to the avian inhabitants of a single location, noting the date can eliminate any candidates who would not be found there during that time of year. Birds of different kinds also tend to be active at different times of day, so the time can be an important thing to note as well.

What group does the bird belong to?

Double Crested Cormorant
Photo by Shlomo Shalev on Unsplash

For any bird you see, even as a non-birdwatcher, there’s a good chance you know a bit more about it than you think. For example, you’ll often intuitively know the group it belongs to. Most owls are clearly owls. Most ducks are distinctly ducks, or at least immediately recognizable as waterfowl. Even if a bird’s group is unknown to you, there is a lot of value in knowing what it isn’t! If you can look at a bird and eliminate a large swathe of candidates on sight, then you’ve already got a head start. When looking for a small bird that you spotted bathing in your birdbath, birds of prey can generally be eliminated pretty quickly. Additionally, there are some keywords that can help with identifying a bird’s group. Most backyard birds belong to the order Passeriformes. These birds are also called passerines. Passerines are perching birds, often referred to as “song birds,” they belong to the order because of the specific arrangement of their toes. Even if you can’t tell a bird’s order by glancing at its toes, knowing vocabulary like this will help you feel less lost as you tackle that mystery bird. Many groups fall under the order of the passerines, so narrow it down as much as you’re able to.

What color is the bird?

At this point, you will likely be working off of a short list of birds that are present in the region at the time of the sighting. Maybe you even have an idea for what group your bird belongs to. Depending on location, though, this list may be anything but short. There are often, even in urban areas, quite a lot more birds present than you might think. So, the next step towards a positive identification is color. Observe the bird in question and note the coloration and markings it has. It’s helpful to learn some bird anatomy at this stage. Simple features, like the color of the “eye ring,” the circular area around a bird’s eye, can often crack the case as far as what bird you’re looking at. Using specific terms will greatly increase the success of your effort. A “brown bird” is a much harder specimen to identify than a “brown bird with a yellow eye ring.” Having a modest vocabulary of anatomy keywords will come in handy when describing the shape of a bird as well. 

How big is the bird?

This criterion is pretty straightforward. Birds range in size from feathered giants the size of humans, like ostriches, to hummingbirds the size of peanuts. Having even a vague idea of the size of your mystery bird can be a great way of narrowing down its identity. Birdwatchers often think of bird sizes as relative to the size of a bird they’re familiar with. Think of it sort of like playing twenty questions. Is it bigger than a Canada goose? Is it smaller than a house sparrow? Using size markers like these can get you that much closer to an ID.

What shape is the bird?

Shape is an essential feature for identification. As with coloration and markings, it is helpful to know some basic bird anatomy. For example, the direction that a bird’s bill curves can be referred to as “decurved” if it curves downward or “recurved” if it curves upwards. So, an ibis has a decurved bill, and an American avocet has a recurved bill. There are a great number of other details that can help identify your bird. These specific details are great to know, however even just a simple description of a bird’s basic shape can be a useful tool. Things to look out for are the shape of the tail, the shape of the wings, the length of the legs, the shape of the bill, the shape of the feet, and the presence of any other unique features like crests or bald areas.

How does the bird behave? 

Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

Identifying a bird based on its behavior may seem a bit tricky but it’s still worth the effort. Take note of what the bird in question was doing when you spotted it. Some behaviors can be dead giveaways for the bird’s identity. Seeing a kingfisher snapping up a minnow from a stream is going to make that ID pretty easy. However, even basic behaviors can help eliminate other candidates. If, for example, you were to spot a bird gregariously calling from a highly visible position, you can probably eliminate the candidate that’s typically shy and elusive. Birds are individuals, but they tend to follow behavioral patterns that can be observed by watching.

 What sounds does the bird make?

A birdwatcher’s ears can be an incredible tool for determining which birds are around them. Many beginner birdwatchers find identifying birds based on their song or call to be a bit difficult. Like our other criteria though, the sounds a bird makes can be used by birdwatchers of any level. Though the buzzy “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” of a black-capped chickadee is iconic, it’s often hard to be certain of a song’s identity unless you’ve heard it before. If possible, it’s helpful to record what you’re hearing so that you can compare it to the candidates you have in mind, even after the bird has ended its performance. Even when a song cannot give you a positive identification, it can usually be used to narrow down your list of possibilities.

With all of these tools at your disposal, identifying birds will become easier and easier. In fact, practiced birdwatchers are often able to identify these traits with groups of birds, so that a bird’s group is immediately apparent. Traits like these become second nature with a little bit of practice.

I’ve identified my bird, now what?

Congratulations! You’ve put a name to a feathered face and solved yourself a mystery. Many birdwatchers become enthusiastic hobbyists simply because they enjoy the satisfaction of making an ID so much. If your interest in this identification ends when the case is cracked then that’s all there is to do, however if you still feel drawn to your former mystery bird, or birdwatching itself, you should consider keeping a life list. What is a life list? A life list is a common practice among birdwatchers wherein you keep a lifelong record of all the birds you’ve seen and identified. Most birders keep track of when and where the sighting occurred. Some do so digitally, some with a physical notebook, pad, or journal. Some birdwatchers even keep pictures and recordings of each bird as a part of this record. For more information on the ins and outs of the life list, check out this article:

Whether you’re adding a new bird to your life list, starting your life list with your very first bird identification, or simply figuring out the name of the bird that just built its nest outside of your window, with the use of these tips you’ll soon solve your mystery bird.