Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Identifying a bird may seem intimidating, but there is a tried and true approach for us bird-lovers!
I often teach this as a multi-day class around my region. However, I have decided to use my teaching materials to create a shortened version of the class, that you can return to for a refresher as needed. If I do not want to watch my videos more than once, why would you? I will not be posting any recommendations for gear in this post. Instead, if you want my gear recommendations for those new to birdwatching and wildlife watching, visit my Amazon Influencer Storefront, or check out my posts in the Gear tab of the blog.
Basics of Bird Identification
When you encounter a bird, ask yourself THREE basic questions:
What can I see?
What can I hear?
What is my current situation (date, location, habitat, etc)?
Those three questions are your foundation for every bird identification. While we occasionally lean on one question over the others, do not make a habit of disregarding the other information that can be used by asking the other two questions!
These questions are part of what I refer to as the identification web. Why do I call it a web? Each piece of information helps to support the full identification of a bird! If you pull one piece of information out, the web becomes weaker. Just like... your identification. (Brain explosion!)
Using these three sources of information, we can create a "stairway" to bird identification. While the steps are not always in order, if you see a bird before you hear it, this is a great way to begin your identification.
The first two steps of the bird ID stairway are often referred to as a bird's GISS or General Impression of Shape and Size. Some birders will throw other bits of information in with GISS, but the most basic meaning comes back to the first two steps, SHAPE and SIZE.
Identify a Bird by Shape and Size
How much can size and shape help us? A LOT. You likely know more bird shapes than you realize. For example, check out this image below. I bet you can name multiple bird shapes. I will put the answers at the bottom of the post.
And of course, it is only logical to make an estimation of a bird's size when you are also considering its shape. I like to encourage birdwatchers to start by considering a bird's size to three species they are usually quite familiar with: House Sparrow, American Robin, and American Crow. Using these three sizes can help eliminate a lot of possibilities for your bird identification. Try to identify the three birds in red. Answers will be at the bottom of the post.
My recommendation to a field guide often goes hand-in-hand with this image of bird size. Why? In Sibley guides (and many other field guides), birds are arranged taxonomically. That helps us in finding birds quickly if we use this trick. Birds larger than a crow are usually in the first 1/3 of your field guide. Birds that are crow to robin size are in the middle 1/3 of your book. And finally, birds that are smaller than a robin are in the final 1/3 of your guide. There are exceptions to this rule, like hummingbirds, but it can still prove very helpful.
Identify a Bird by Field Marks
From size, we move on to visible field marks. What are field marks? You've already seen them in this post! Field marks are the markings on a bird that are formed from a birds plumage. You will see terms such as crown or crown stripe, wing bars, breast or chest spot, malar, and many others. Learn these names to help translate your field guide!
Identify a Bird by Sound
Bird sound is something that I struggled with early on in learning birds. I still struggle from time to time. However, bird sound can still be helpful in identification, even if you are not a pro at it. You can use sound and describe it in your notes. You can follow the sound to find the bird. And you can eliminate potential birds, by deciding if it is a sound you know for a given species.
When first learning sounds, some birders like to use mnemonic devices. Such as caw-caw-caw for a crow. Or describing the House wren sound as the sound emitted from a human when they stub your toe. Mnemonics are helpful in learning bird sounds, and tricking your brain into remembering something is always a good idea. Right?
Identify a Bird by Habitat
Now we come to context. What is context? It is A LOT of things. It is time of year, habitat, behavior, location, food, etc. Context is almost like peeking at the cheat sheet for a crossword, or if you're from a younger generation, using a cheat code like up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start. I have no idea what that code does, but Google says it is popular. Use context to aid in identification. The nice thing about context? It does not disappear. So, look and listen to your bird, then record all the context you can after the bird is gone.
Consider this Canvasback, above. You will likely not find diving ducks in a desert habitat. Context.
Where would you find something like a Red Crossbill? Not in a prairie. In a coniferous forest? Yes! Context.
Have a strange bird at your feeder? Look to common feeder birds first, like chickadees, finches, and sparrows. Also, think about when certain birds visit your feeder. I get less feeder birds in the summer than I do in the winter. For instance, I never see juncos at my feeder from the months of May to September.
Bird Identification by Behavior
Behavior is something that is observed and then should be recorded. You can record behavior in notes, a camera, voice description on your phone, or in your memory. Behavior can be CRITICAL in identifying certain species.
Below are two birds that frequently climb trees. Nuthatches, like the Red-breasted Nuthatch on the left, climb up and down trees. However, Brown Creepers, like the bird on the right, only go UP trees.
Warblers, like those in the photo below, are known for their erratic behavior. They are high energy and constantly moving. Vireos, on the other hand, are more methodical in their feeding behavior.
What to do When You See a Bird?
Those are the basics. Now what? Apply them. When you see a bird, you will want to:
Observe the bird
Photograph the bird
Refer to a field guide
Notice which step I say to "refer to a field guide." It is the LAST STEP. If you jump into a field guide before you have finished fully observing the bird, you may come out with a misidentification.
Using what you learned above, how many birds can you identify below? You won't get any help from sound, so use what you see and what the situation is. If you want the answer, you will want to subscribe to our blog, so you get notified when we publish the answer sheet in a few days!
Bird Silhouette Quiz
Shape Photo Answers
Upper left - Sharp-shinned Hawk
Bottom left - Great Egret
Center - Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Top Right - Domestic Goose
Bottom Right - Black Skimmer
Size Photo Answers
Left - American Goldfinch
Center - Evening Grosbeak
Right - Blue Jay
Watch my presentation on Bird Identification
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