There are more than eight hundred species of birds in Canada and America, which can make the idea of learning bird identification seem a little overwhelming. But every birder had to start somewhere. This guide will go over what you need to study to learn how to properly identify birds, the different techniques you can try, and what to do when you misidentify a bird.
Table of Contents
The New Birder
Learning about the hundreds of different bird species found all over the country can be exciting for many new birders, especially when it comes to learning more about the very birds that visit your yard every day. It can be fun to see a bird land on a nearby branch and quickly take in their characteristics and easily identify what species it is. However, for some birders, learning how to quickly ID a bird can be very frustrating, especially those who expand their sightings and visit parks, forests, wetlands, and far off locations in order to challenge their birding skills and attempt to sight new and/or rare birds.
When you first start birding, the goal is to learn about birds by writing down specific details of the bird’s appearance, such as the plumage. While this can be a useful way to determine the species, it can be difficult to pinpoint a specific species since many tend to be very similar, so only a highly trained birder will be able to easily identify it.
Fortunately, there are ways you can learn how to quickly recognize what group an unknown bird belongs to. An experienced birder is able to identify many different species of birds by just looking at them quickly. But how do they do this? They use a trusted method, which involves searching for four key characteristics:
- Color pattern
- Shape and size
But for the new birder, learning how to do this can be very challenging. Yet, the challenge of correctly identifying a bird is considered one of the best parts of this hobby. While it can be frustrating and difficult at times, it’s very rewarding once you’re able to finally identify the bird you’ve sighted.
You’ll use the same steps to identify a bird, regardless of whether you’re feeding birds in your backyard or you’re at the park, or in the backcountry.
The size of the bird is the first thing you’ll notice. The size of the bird will help you narrow in on what species it is. To begin, consider what category the bird falls in: large, medium, small? Learning how to categorize a bird based on size can take some practice, but you’ll find that in no time you’re able to size up a bird almost automatically. If you have a field guide, you’ll find that many will give a size for a bird’s length, which is measured from the end of its tail to the tip of its bill.
Keep in mind, a bird that’s hunched over on the ground, foraging for food, will appear much fatter and shorter than if it were perched in a tree. A bird can be startled by the appearance of a cat or a sudden noise and will stretch out its neck, which can also make it look much longer compared to when it’s relaxed. Birds also look very thin when they have their feathers held close to their body. They also look much fatter when their feathers are all fluffed out, especially in colder weather. You’ll need to watch the bird for several minutes in order to correctly judge its size and take into consideration its bulk and length.
Try to look at the bird instead of your field guide. If you pay too much attention to your field guide, then you’ll miss out on properly identifying the bird, since it may be gone in a matter of seconds.
Begin with your general impression. What’s the most noticeable thing about the bird? This can include the color of its plumage, size, and shape.
For some birders, their general impression may be enough to help them identify the bird. To do, begin at the bird’s bill or head and work your way down. The pattern of a bird’s head is often the best identification tool for many birders. Does the bird have a line over its eyes or stripes on its head? Is the head an interesting color?
Make sure you also pay attention to its bill. The size and shape of the bill can often indicate which bird family it belongs to. Bird families consist of bird species that share many characteristics and are closely related. As an example, the sparrow has a thick, short bill. Mockingbirds and thrashers have thin, long bills that curve downward.
Once you’ve looked at the bird’s underparts, wings, back, cheeks, and head consider if the back is lighter or darker than the belly or head. Does the back have streaks? Are the underparts lightly colored, darker, or have spots or streaks?
The wings can also provide an important identifying feature, which is the absence or presence of wing bars. A wing bar is contrasting pale lines across the wings and they’re commonly found on many species of birds.
Is the tail lighter or darker than the back? Is it forked or rounded? Short or long? Does the bird wag or bob its tail persistently? While this may seem like a lot to remember, once you gain more experience with identifying a bird, this process will all feel like second nature.
Now that you’ve written down all of this information, you can now open your field guide and try to properly identify the bird you’ve seen. The initial number of choices can make this process pretty confusing for the new birder. I recommend simply starting at the beginning of the field guide and working your way through it. In time, you’ll know exactly what section to turn to. A small bird with a short thick bill and brown coloring will have you turning to the sparrow section.
The bird’s flight range can also help you narrow in on the species. If you’re in Florida and you identify the bird in your yard as one that lives in Oregon, according to your field guide, then you’re probably not right. Consider a bird’s flight range. While it’s true that a bird may end up a long way from the state or area that they’re supposed to be in, it’s not very common.
Habitats can also be a big indicator of the type of birds you can find there, although there can be some exceptions. There are four major habitat categories:
Scrub-shrub: These habitats consist of bushes and short woody plants.
Aquatic: This type of habitat will include shorelines, oceans, marshes, swamps, ponds, and lakes.
Woodland: The forested, or woodland habitats are usually defined by the presence of deciduous or coniferous trees.
Open habitats: Include more agricultural fields, tundra, and grasslands.
Birds that migrate have habitats and locations that change depending on the time of year. Many online resources record where and when each species of bird migrates. You may get a totally new community of backyard birds in the winter than you do in the summer. Do the birds that visit you spend all year in your yard or do they migrate? When the birds aren’t in your backyard, where do they typically go?
You can often identify a bird based on the type of habitat you find them in. Just keep in mind that the birds that migrate will not always be found in the same type of habitat.
Birds not only look unique, but they also have a unique way of feeding, flying, moving, and behaving. If you spend time just observing a bird’s behavior as it moves around, you can learn a lot about the bird and even narrow down the species until you come to the right conclusion. Are you having a hard time identifying one of the common types of hummingbirds in North America? These birds can be very similar in appearance, but some are very shy and passive, while others are very aggressive and territorial. So, if you’re stuck trying to figure out what species the hummingbird is as it divebombs you, you can check your field guide and look at the species of hummingbirds that are aggressive, narrowing down the options. Try to watch the bird as long as you can and don’t rush to ID it. Watching a bird behave in the wild, their movements and activities is always very rewarding and educational.
Take note of what the bird is doing and how it’s acting. Is it part of a huge flock or is it hanging out on a branch alone? Some birds have a type of constant nervous energy and can’t seem to sit still. Some species will always seem to be on high alert and searching for possible danger. Other birds will remain still and silent, regardless of what’s going on around it.
Observe how a bird moves around its habitat. This can tell you a lot about the type of bird it is and will allow you to see some features that may have been previously hidden when the bird was in flight or perched high on a branch.
There are some species of birds that feature a flight pattern that’s very distinct. This can make that bird very easy to identify once it’s in the air. As an example, the rainbow lorikeet will fly fast and straight, while the black cockatoo features a loping and long flight with a very slow wing beat.
If you spend enough time watching a bird when it’s active, then you’re more than likely to catch it eating at some point. You can take note of the types of foods these birds are eating, whether they forage on the ground, or from plant life, and the time of day they’re eating.
Identifying Birds in Flight
Identifying a bird in flight can be very challenging, even for the most skilled birder. However, it’s an important skill to learn. Many birders tend to be intimidated by learning how to sight a bird in flight, but there are some tips and tricks you can use to ID them and impress your birding friends.
- Some birds are easier to ID than others. Characteristics among certain species will vary depending on the flight technique, flight pattern, shape, and size.
- One of the main things you’ll want to pay attention to is if the bird is flying alone or it’s part of a flock. This can be a key identifier and will help you narrow down which type of species you’re looking at. Also, take note of how big the flock is.
- Wing rhythm can also be a great indicator of the species. Every bird belongs to a family of birds that moves their wings and flies in a manner that’s very similar to one another. Take note of the way a bird thrusts itself through the air. This will allow you to classify the family of birds it belongs to. It can also be a great indicator of identifying the specific species. The magnitude and speed of the wing-flapping are very important. Some birds may not flap their wings completely. The higher the speed in which a bird flies, the smaller the magnitude of their flapping will be.
- Use your finger, tracing out the path the bird flies. Is it flying up and down or side to side? Is it flying all over the place or just flying straight? Keep this information in mind. Every type of bird will follow a specific flight pattern that’s shared by other birds that belong to the same family.
- Using a field guide can help you narrow down the possibilities concerning what types of birds you’ll see, based on your location. Make a note of the terrain type. Are you in predator territory? In the uplands? Are you in a marsh? Where you are will also be a great indicator of the birds you’re going to see.
- Birding is a total waiting game, so it’s important to not become impatient waiting for a special bird. Try to remain focused. A bird will come soon enough. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get a whole flock, which will make it easier to identify them. Try to stick with one species of bird. Study up on their flight behavior, so when you’re out birding you can be more prepared. Avoid trying to sight multiple birds in flight and instead, focus on that one particular species and take plenty of notes.
Birding Identification Tips
When you go through your field guide, make sure you go all the way through it, even if you believe you’ve already found the correct bird. Be sure you also check and see if there are species that are similar to the bird you’ve sighted. Many people tend to settle on the first bird in the guide that looks similar to the bird they saw in their yard.
- A bird may not look exactly like their photo in your field guide. Just like people, a bird’s appearance can vary. If you’re going down the list and most of the characteristics match and you haven’t found a similar species, then you probably have the right bird.
- If you’re having a hard time pinpointing the species and have narrowed it down to a few species, then try looking at a different field guide.
- If you’re not having any luck IDing a bird using a field guide, go online. There are many online resources that can provide valuable information that can make bird identification easier.
What Happens When You Misidentify a Bird?
Every birder misidentifies a bird from time to time. Of course, a beginner will do so more frequently. But this is all part of the learning process. misidentifying a bird should not discourage you from trying again. Many birders struggle to identify certain species of birds, which is totally natural. Even the most seasoned birder will get stumped from time to time. You can feel close to identifying a bird, then take a wrong turn once you notice something that doesn’t look right about the species you initially identified the bird as. Maybe the bird is too small or large, there’s an unexpected pattern, or the color is off.
Don’t be discouraged if you’re not able to identify a bird properly the first several times you try. Errors can also be caused by imperfect data, views through fog or rain, obstructed views, or distant views. It can be impossible to completely eliminate errors from your observations. In the beginning, you can expect to incorrectly ID a bird for a number of reasons, although the most common is your lack of experience. It happens. Over time, you’ll find characteristics that stick out in your mind regarding specific species, which can help you to identify a bird more easily. Of course, for some this can take several months or years to get down, for others, who have a knack for memorization, they may be able to identify several species of birds, easily, in a matter of weeks. It’s different for every birder.
Practice Your Bird ID Skills
Start by practicing with your birding binoculars. In the beginning, you’ll end up missing out on sighting a bird because you haven’t gotten the hang of adjusting your binoculars. Learn how to focus with the diopter properly. Using your binoculars incorrectly can be very frustrating. But with a little practice, you can become familiar with the different features, how to adjust the lenses correctly, and how to sight birds in a variety of light conditions.
- Study field guides. If you spend time studying field guides, you’ll become familiar with the different illustrations and descriptions, which can grow your knowledge base. You may not be able to remember everything, but what you do can help you the next time you’re faced with an unfamiliar species. Use more than one field guide, since not all field guides are created equal.
- Listening to bird song recordings can also help. Surprisingly, not many bird watchers spend time listening to bird songs and calls. These days, you can easily download an app on your smartphone that’s dedicated to wild bird calls.
- If you often go birding with an experienced birder, be sure to ask plenty of questions. You can even watch the steps your fellow birder takes to identify a bird. Each birder will have their own process that can be very interesting to watch.
- Keep track of the birds you’ve sighted. Keeping a list of all the species you sight each season can actually be pretty exciting and can push you to challenge yourself for the next upcoming birding season. This will also show you what type of species of birds you can expect in your area in the coming season.
- Take notes when you’re birding, list the time of day, the date, and what the weather was like, where you were, what the bird was doing, and even draw a sketch of the bird. Did you know a bird’s behaviors can also help you to identify the species? Some birds have very distinctive behaviors, such as mating rituals, feeding and foraging behaviors, or some may be very territorial and aggressive.
Build Your Birding ID Skills
If you’ve just started birding and you’re frustrated by your inability to ID a bird properly, then you’re probably wondering how a birder is able to identify a bird so easily. Learning how to identify birds is a great way to become more aware of the biodiversity all around you. By creating a birding journal you can write down distinguishing characteristics of the local species that you encounter.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways you can categorize a bird, such as the bird’s behavior, color pattern, habitat, food type, size, and shape. You can organize these categories in your journal in a way that makes the most sense to you.
Get a Feeder
If you want to practice identifying hummingbirds in your area, then purchase feeders designed for hummingbirds, find a comfortable spot, and watch as these birds fly in and out of your yard to eat. You can take note of their characteristics, unique color patterns, size, behaviors, and more.
You can also buy a traditional feeder for other birds, one that can hold suet or birdseed. I recommend purchasing a squirrel proof bird feeder since these will help to prevent squirrels and other animals from stealing all of your birdseed. You can also get really creative and experiment with different types of birdseed to see what species you can attract to your yard, take note of it, and write down all of your daily visitors. If you’re not sure what type of birdseed attracts a specific species, then click here to read my guide to birdseed types.
If you don’t have a bird feeder or don’t want to hang one in your yard, you can also try using mealworms. Feeding mealworms to birds can be a great way to get birds flocking to your yard throughout the day. These larvae are very nutritious and birds love them. With this type of food source, you’ll be sure to attract a wide variety of species.
During this time, as you introduce new types of foods and birdseed, take note of the different species that visit your yard, or simply write down the descriptions and be as detailed as possible, so you can reference your field guide later on for proper identification.
Feeding birds in your yard can be a great way to practice using your new bird identifying skills and you won’t feel quite so flustered or as frustrated as you are when you’re out with experienced birders at your local woods.
Use these tips to help you progress in your bird identification skills, and watch how more confident you become when you’re out sighting birds with friends. Remember, you may not be able to sight as many birds as your experienced birdwatching friends, but by practicing in your backyard, studying field guides, and taking note of a bird’s characteristics, behavior, eating habits, and where you find them, you can use your detective work to pinpoint the exact species. This is a skill that will be developed over time. Focus on identifying one or two new birds a week, study them, and make it a point to sight them as much as possible when you’re at your local park, in the woods, or taking a walk through the neighborhood. This will help you build confidence and will encourage you to learn more about your local backyard birds.