How to identify birds
Learn the skills to identify birds and the different species
Identifying the birds you are seeing is one of the most enjoyable aspects of bird watching. With a little practice and a few tips, you’ll be able to name many of the common species around you. Use your field guide and birding apps as resources for learning individual bird traits. As you’re knowledge grows, it won’t be long before you’ll be saying “Song Sparrow” or “American Goldfinch” when you spot a bird.
1. Range and Season
An important aspect of bird identification is narrowing the field of species in a given region. Some birds are present all year, often referred to as resident species. Many are present only in the summer half of the year, while others winter here by the ocean or at feeders. Still, others pass through in spring and fall, breeding in Canada and wintering to our south.
Range Maps are especially helpful to learn what birds are regular here and which months they are present. Field Guides come equipped with a range map for each species, usually located in the back of the book. Birding Apps also can list what species are likely in your area.
In what environment you see a bird, not just the area, is telling. Some birds can be found only in select habitats like marshes or seashores. Other birds are only found in forests, grasslands, on mountains. While birds move around, they tend to spend most of their time in a particular kind of habitat.
2. Size, Shape, and Body Parts
At some point in your birdwatching journey you will identify most birds in a split second and at ever greater distances. Until then, you need to size up your mystery bird. For starters let’s divide birds into just four sizes.
Small: 4, 5, or 6 inches as in House Sparrow
Medium: 8, 9 or 10 inches as in American Robin
Large: 12-15 inches as in American Crow
Very Large: 18 inches or more as in Canada Goose
If you were to spot a Baltimore Oriole, you might say it was larger than a sparrow and smaller than a robin.
BIRD BODY PARTS
Get to know the names of the bird anatomy
Legs - Most songbirds get by with short inconspicuous legs for grasping a branch or scratching the ground. Swifts, hummingbirds, kingfishers and woodpeckers also have rather short legs. As you discover waterbirds and shorebirds you will often take note of the relative length and colors of the legs and feet.
Wings and Tails - Wings fold into the sides of a bird’s body when perched, resting or foraging on the ground. What about tails? There is a long and short of it as expected. We have Long-tailed Ducks, Wild Turkeys and even Barn Swallows that have long tails. Many songbirds have what could be called short tails.
Beaks - For songbirds, it is very important to focus on the beak or "bill". Is it a thin bill for snatching insects (warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, and wrens), a conical bill (tanager), or a stubby thick bill for seed-cracking (sparrows, juncos, and finches)?
3. Color Patterns and Markings
Once you have determined the size of a bird and placed it into one or more similar families it is time to take notice of what colors patterns and markings it has. These are known as field marks. There are some birds that are unicolored with just one plumage color (bills and legs may be different). A Mute Swan is entirely white while a female cowbird is entirely dull gray.
A majority of birds have patches of some color and many have stripes, spots, wing bars, eye lines and/or contrasting patterns on its wings and tail. These help birds recognize each other and help birders recognize them as well.
You may see a bird that flashes black and red. It could be a Red-winged Blackbird, Scarlet Tanager, or even a Northern Cardinal. Noting where on the bird those colors are should narrow your identification to just one of those.
Behavior can also be a clue to identification. Birds search for their preferred food items, avoid danger, squabble with others and carry on courtship and territory defense during their time here.
Foraging behavior can help pinpoint a species or place your bird(s) into a suite of a family. Woodpeckers and creepers hitch up tree trunks, while nuthatches usually work their way down tree trunks headfirst, as do Black-and-white Warblers. Flycatchers sit still and sally out after flying insects. Warblers glean along leafy branches rather quickly while similar-looking vireos feed more leisurely. Wrens dive into underbrush and are often seen with their tails cocked up over their back.
Eagles soar on flat horizontal wings, while Turkey Vultures soar with both wings held up at about a 15 degree angle. Crows flap steadily while the similar Common Raven glides between several flaps. Woodpeckers fly in roller coaster fashion with a few flaps and then a glide. Most other birds fly in a straight line.
In raptors, such as the Red-tailed Hawk, perch conspicuously and soar on broad rounded wings with incredible eye sight spotting mice far below. Accipiters, such as the Cooper’s Hawk, rarely soar but are seen flying through the trees with shorter rounded wings usually chasing medium-sized birds such as Mourning Doves and Blue Jays. Falcons have very pointed wings and fly fast in open country not woodlands.
5. Vocalizations: Calls and Songs
There are two basic kinds of sounds made by birds.
Calls are given all year by most birds. They basically say I’m over here, everything is OK. They may indicate a newly discovered food source or warn colleagues of approaching possible danger. There are specific calls that some birds like Red-winged Blackbirds and Greater Yellowlegs use to warn all birds within earshot that some hawk is coming at them. Specialized flight calls are given at night during migration which aid small groups of the same species keep together.
Songs are mostly given while defending a breeding territory from other males of the same species. Most female songbirds do not have a true song. Songs are also heard during northbound Spring migration and practice songs are sometimes given on southbound Fall migration. Some bird songs are very musical and heart-warming, while others are basically chatter or unremarkable.
Knowing Word Phrases for Bird Sounds
There will be many times while birdwatching when you may not have a view of a bird, but you can hear their call or song clearly. To help learn these sounds, it is often easier to remember catchy word phrases. These words are referred to as mnemonics. Here are few of the most common birds for you to help you memorize them for easier identification.
Barred Owl - "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you awl"
Great Crested Flycatcher - "Wheep Wheep Wheeper"
Blue Jay - "Jay, jay, jay"
Black-capped Chickadee - "Feebee"
Tufted Titmouse - "Peter, peter, peter"
Carolina Wren - "Ket-tle tea ket-tle tea ket-tle-tea"
Gray Catbird - "Meeooow"
Common Yellowthroat - "Witchedy Wichedy Witchedy"
Ovenbird - "Teacher Teacher Teacher"
Northern Cardinal - "pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty"
Eastern Towhee - "Drink your tea"
White-throated Sparrow - "Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada"
American Goldfinch - "Chicory Chickory"
Learn more about Bird Identification from the Spark Birding Online Courses.