The 6 tips for Bird Identification

The 6 tips for Bird Identification

What is your relationship with birds?

Have you grown up in an urban home where you see birds daily? Did you grow up in a city where the birds you saw were pigeons or gulls? Do you get annoyed when the dawn chorus wakes you early in the morning? Do you know how to tell bird species apart or are you a conspiracist who thinks all birds are government spies – I know, ridiculous, right?

My background with birds started when I was around three years old. My mother took me to a bird walk she saw advertised in our local town in Ohio. She showed up with me and got the nastiest looks from the birders (most birders are not this stuck up regarding youth getting involved with birdwatching). They figured a child would be loud and scare away all the birds. However, by the end of the two-hour bird walk, most of them were coming up to my mom and praising her for bringing me as I was very well behaved, made no loud noises, and was very engaged in trying to spot birds! I think this single event in my life started my fascination with birds and when I started learning from local birding legends in my small Vermont community, I was hooked!

Photo of me and one of my childhood pups, Josie, watching the birds at the feeder out the window

No matter what your background or experience with birds is, my goal through this blog is to convince you that birds are worth caring about and conserving! I’d like to start off early on giving you some tips and tricks regarding identifying birds. Personally, I think the challenge and puzzle of identifying an unknown species is part of the fun of birding. However, it definitely can be overwhelming to beginners, but ends up being worth the struggle in the long run. Once you are able to identify birds, then you can recognize species and learn their behaviors!

For this overview of IDing birds, we will examine 6 different categories birders consider when trying to identify a bird. Also, an important note – these tips and tricks came not only from my own personal knowledge and experience, but also from one of my favorite birding books – The Beginners Guide to Birding: The Easiest Way for Anyone to Explore the Incredible World of Birds written by Nate Swick. I highly recommend the book for anyone who is interested in what they are learning through my blog and want to learn even more!

Now for the list!

  • Size
  • Shape/Silhouette
  • Color
  • Habitat
  • Behavior
  • Range

Size is one of the first thing a birder pays attention to. Once a general size is established, they can go through their brain’s field guide and filter birds that fit that general size. However, size can be tricky when you don’t have anything to compare it to. Birders have established several “common” species of birds to use as size comparisons, and they are the American Robin, American Crow and Red-tailed Hawk.

Credit: The Beginner’s Guide to Birding by Nate Swick

Similar to size is the shape or silhouette of a bird. Paying attention to parts of the bird such as length of the tail, length and shape of the bill, and feet structure are important factors that can narrow down the search for the correct species. This tip is helpful at the broad end of the ID process, as species of sparrows for example, have very similar silhouettes and very few birders can ID a sparrow just from shape. That is why we have more ID tips to follow!

Next is color. Color can be very helpful for ID’ing a bird, but it also can make things even more complicated. Depending on the lighting or the angle the birder is looking at the bird from for example, a bird’s color can look different from reality. Another factor at play is the differences between males and females and even just individuals of the same sex. Oftentimes, juvenile birds look completely different than their adult counterparts if one is solely focusing on color.

Male and Female Common Yellowthroat Warbler
Morgan Quimby Photography

Just to keep adding on layers, birds can also lack pigment or have the pressence of pigment that actually changes the lightness or darkness of their plumage. In fact, birds show as much if not more variation in this regard than us humans. Sometimes it is better to focus on patterning of the individual, and not just the overall color. Patterning such as an eye ring, a swatch of color on the chest/neck or crown of the head, or barring on the wing can help narrow down the ID.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Morgan Quimby Photography

Below is a great example when color isn’t always the most helpful, and other tips need to be referenced to reach a successful ID. The first photo is a Summer Tanager and the second image is a Northern Cardinal. As you can see, they are both red. There is one clear difference in color with the black “face mask” present on the Cardinal and not the Tanager, but that may not be enough depending on the location of the sighting and what kind of view you have of the bird.

Summer Tanager (Male)
Northern Cardinal (Male)

Most people who aren’t birders wouldn’t be able to tell them apart if they came across them in the wild, however, there are key differences that experienced birders can pick up on. The first thing is the beak size and color. The Summer Tanager has a slightly thinner and longer bill that is a pale tan in color compared to the Northern Cardinal’s wider and shorter bill that is orangish red in color. Next is the head crest of the Cardinal. This can get tricky as the Cardinal can flatten this crest to it’s head which makes it appear to have a Tanager shaped head. Finally, the ends of their tails are essentially the same shape, although it is hard to tell from this photo. However, the Cardinal does have a longer tail than the Tanager.

Next on our list is the habitat. Birds are often very predictable in this sense and can be a help to birders when attempting to ID an individual. For example, if you have a small mottled grey and brown bird with long legs and a long beak scurrying along a shoreline in Maine, you most likely have a shorebird like a Sanderling or a Semi-palmated Plover or Sandpiper. You wouldn’t see this bird at your backyard feeder, just like you wouldn’t see a Mourning dove scurrying along a beach in Maine. This is a tip that is most helpful once you have researched specific species and their habitats, but it’s an important one nonetheless.

Morgan Quimby Photography

Almost there! Our second to last tip is behavior. As a bird photographer this is one of my favorite parts of birding. Behaviors can help narrow down what type of bird one is looking at. For example, you might look at how a bird is perching. If you saw a bird parallel to a tree shimmying up with its feet gripping the bark, you very likely have a woodpecker such as a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or a Hairy or Downy Woodpecker. However, if you saw a small yellow and black bird flitting around rapidly from branch to branch way up high in the top of a tree, it is most likely one of the many species of Warblers that fits that simple description of yellow and black.

Downy Woodpecker
Morgan Quimby Photography

Behavior can come in handy when some of the other tips such as color may not be as helpful. Shorebirds are a great example of this as certain species prefer to wade in shallow water and rapidly jab their long bills into the sand to forage, some prefer to forage on exposed barnacle and seaweed covered rocks at low tide, while more still run to the water’s edge to collect small creatures when the waves retreat and rapidly run back up to the safety of the dry beach when the waves crash back towards the beach.

Purple Sandpiper
Morgan Quimby Photography

Finally, we come to Range. This is one tip that often requires a field guide unless the birder in question is extremely well versed in bird species distributions off the top of their head! Most field guides these days have a handy map on each species page that is color coded with their normal range based on time of year and the reason they are where they are (breeding range, migration/winter range, etc).

An example of a range map (Common Loon) from

Phew, I hope you are all still with me! I know I just threw a lot of tips at you, but if you start slow and put these guidelines into practice around your home territory with birds you are used to seeing, you will get the hang of it quicker than you might think!

If you are looking for something to do during quarantine, birdwatching from your home or at nearby hiking/nature trails is a great way to get outside as well as hone your birding skills and become a human being more connected to the natural world. Stay tuned for the next installment of Bird Blog where we will examine the beautiful world of bird photography!

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