How to Identify a Bird

Three Parts:Identifying The BirdGetting Prepared For The FieldGathering Information in the Field

Have you ever spotted a bird at your feeder, in the woods or by the sea that really interested you, but you couldn’t identify it? By observing and recording specific information and learning how to use field guides and other resources, you can learn to identify almost any bird you cross paths with.

Part 1
Identifying The Bird

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    Go over your field notes. This includes all of your written notes and photographs. Organize them carefully so that when you start the identification process, you don’t get details mixed up.
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    Consult your field guide. Whether you choose a book or a website as your field guide, this is most certainly the next step in identification. Spend time beforehand getting to know the layout and format of your guide, so that you can use it with ease.
    • Field guides are organized into groups of birds that are related to one another. The groups are listed from the least-evolved to the most-evolved birds. Many guides have helpful color tabs to make the process a bit easier for you.
    • When trying to identify a bird, look at the bird rather than the book or image. The bird provides all the details and leads the way. It’s easy to get distracted by things you see in the book, but it’s the bird that provides all of the field marks and identifiers! At this point in the identification process, any photographs you took of the bird are incredibly helpful.
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    Search for your bird online. There are multiple options for bird search engines online. You can enter a bird name, shape, region, field marks - as much or as little information as you have. These search engines are extremely accurate and incredibly easy to use!
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    Try out a bird identification app. There are some excellent ones out there for a broad range of different technologies and most of them are free! Do an app search with your device(s) and research your options. Some of the most popular field guides are also available in app form!

Part 2
Getting Prepared For The Field

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    Learn to identify general groups of birds that all share certain similarities. Some common group examples are warblers, flycatchers, hawks, owls, and wrens.[1] Later, when it comes to the identification process and using your field guide, this skill is invaluable because field guides are organized by bird group. Spend some time with books or websites that can help you learn these groups.
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    Get a field guide. Once you get bitten by the bird bug, you should obtain a good field guide to assist you. You can purchase field guides inexpensively, or check out one from a local library. Your local Audubon Society will also have field guides.[2] You want a guide that is easy to use, portable, accurate and specific to your region.
    • In general, painted pictures in field guides are best to use. [3]
    • You can also try a mixed approach by checking out guides that use photos rather than paintings.
    • Even electronic field guides are available! Unlike printed field guides, these guides have videos and sound clips to guide you in identifying birds.
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    Invest in a good pair of binoculars. The more details you can see on a bird, the more easily you can identify it! There is a large range of products with a variety of prices available.[4] It’s all about your personal preference and what you can afford.
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    Become a note taker. Taking down notes in the field and consulting your field guide later is generally considered to be the best method of identification, allowing you to focus fully on the bird and fixing it more readily in your memory. [5]
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    Keep a camera on you. Photos to go along with your notes in the field are incredibly useful for identification. This can be done as simply as using the camera on your phone. Serious birders usually opt for a professional grade camera in the field. By and large, digital images have almost completely replaced film in bird photography.
    • If you do choose to use the camera on your phone, there are excellent adapters that you can buy that will tremendously improve the quality of those images. These are usually very lightweight and portable.
    • Serious birders suggest a camera that can manually override the automatic functions. Birds can be difficult to photograph, so you need a camera you can customize to what you’re seeing in the field.[6]
    • Carrying a tripod along with you in the field while you are birding will improve your photographs significantly.[7]
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    Learn about the birds in your region. Many state and national parks have checklists of the birds seen in the park.[8] These can be incredibly useful. Field guides can be purchased that focus on specific regions or you can obtain more general guides.
    • Check out There you can research checklists that cover every single state in the Unites States, among other regions.[9]
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    Locate the birds. Do some research about the habitat each species of bird prefers. After learning about the habitats, learn about bird songs you hear in your own backyard. Then move on to research the songs of other birds that you know are found in your region. To find a bird, you will often hear it first!
    • is a great resource for assisting you in finding birds. Do a quick Google search to find other websites about birds and birding locations in your state or area of the country. There are tons of excellent websites out there that will help you find information about the birds in your region!
    • Bringing the birds to you is also an option! Read up on particular plants that can draw birds in your area. Consider a bird feeder and building a bird house.

Part 3
Gathering Information in the Field

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    Observe and record the size of the bird. Distance, tricky lighting, individual variation, and a host of other deterrents can confuse or disguise some of a bird’s most obvious field marks, such as the color of its plumage. Because of this, first take note of its size and structure.
    • Use size relativity to get a general idea of the birds size. Size relativity refers to being bigger or smaller than a bird you are familiar with, such as a sparrow, robin, crow, or pigeon. [10]
    • Keep in mind that a common mistake that even experienced bird-watchers make is to overestimate the size of a bird. [11]
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    Study the silhouette of the bird. The silhouette can provide insight pertaining to the group and sometimes even the species of a bird. When examining silhouettes, pay attention to the body shape, tail shape, beak length and body proportions.
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    Record the field marks. As your observation skills improve, familiarize yourself with the field marks. Field marks are colored or patterned areas on the bird's body, head, and wings that help distinguish species.[12]
    • Check for wing bars (stripes across the folded wings).
    • Inspect the wing tips (color of the pointed end of the wings).
    • Examine the wing lining (color of underside of the wing).
    • Check for wing patches (blocks of color on the wings).
    • Look for an eyebrow stripe (the color of stripe above the eye).
    • Note any throat patches (color blocks around the throat area).
    • Look for an eye ring (the ring of color around the eye).
    • Examine the upper and lower beak color.
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    Take note of posture. Many birds have distinctive postures that can help you differentiate between them. Pay attention to the bird’s posture when it is walking and moving about, as well as when it is perched. Noting whether the posture of the perched bird is vertical or horizontal can be very helpful during identification. [13]Check the posture while the bird is feeding and resting, as well. [14]
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    Observe the habitat. Most species of birds are born in and live all of their lives in one particular habitat. [15]Did you see the bird in a forest, a marsh, an empty field, in the desert or near the sea? Did you see it at night or during the day? This can help you considerably when trying to narrow down the identity of a bird.
    • Take note of the location. What part of the country did you see the bird?
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    Observe birds in flight. Identifying birds in flight can be challenging, since you may only get a short glimpse and the distance between you and the bird in flight can be vast. Nevertheless, there are some key features that can be revealed in flight that can help you identify many types of birds. [16]
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    Listen to its song. Birds, particularly males, use their song to attract a mate and to protect their territories. They sing the most in the early morning during breeding season, and they normally repeat the same song over and over. [17]
    • Pay attention to what the bird is doing while singing. Connecting the song to an activity can be very helpful for identification. [18]
    • Break the song into different parts such as tone, pitch and rhythm. This is much easier than trying to identify all of it at once. [19]
    • Try to translate the sound into words or a pattern than you can remember. [20]

Article Info

Categories: Birdwatching