Bird Identification 101: What Questions To Ask Yourself?

For most people, the first step into the fascinating world of avian ecology is learning to identify their local birds.

Normally the effort to satisfy this desire – to know which birds are visiting their backyard – is the beginning of a life long love affair with bird watching. Bird watching is fun, informative and a great way to meet people and learn about the world you live in. I highly recommend it as a pastime.

Bird watching should be distinguished from ‘bird spotting’.

The difference is that while a ‘bird watcher’ is interested in the beauty of the bird and its behaviour, a ‘bird spotter’ is only interested in collecting a set of ticks on a piece of paper. This does not mean that ‘bird watchers’ do not keep lists of what birds they have seen, most of them do – but the attitude is different.

Bird identification is for the most part easier than insect or spider identification, let’s say.

Most birds can be identified by a combination of their image and a knowledge of the habitat they are in at the time. Bird watchers do not have to wade through incomprehensible keys. For most parts of the world, there are now good colour guides to the local bird fauna.

Wherever you are however, some basic rules apply. The most important of which is learning to observe.

You will need to know your way around the bird’s body, its topography. Learning the basic terminology makes life a lot easier. The difference between an ‘eyestripe’ which goes through the eye and a ‘supercilium’ which goes above the eye, can be crucial.

With a bit of luck, the unrealistically coloured hypothetical bird (and other wing image) below will help you with the basics.

bird identification guide

Sketching Out The Identity

A very useful and enjoyable habit to develop is drawing in a note book.

identification of bird wing parts

If you go out on a field trip and see one or more species of bird you are unfamiliar with, making a quick sketch can make the difference between a successful identification and frustration.

These drawings do not need to be works of art, though you will be surprised how much you improve if you keep at it.

Drawing is also a good way of focusing your eye, of making yourself look at the bird.

What shape is the tail, how long are the legs, how large is the bill in relationship to the head, what colour is the eye, is there an eye ring? Asking yourself a series of questions like these will help you get into the habit of seeing the important diagnostic features.

Birds are not static objects, they move, hop, jump, walk and fly around the countryside. A bird’s general shape and the way it moves is its ‘giss’. Getting to know a bird’s giss can be very useful in helping you narrow down its identity.

Does it walk up trees or flit from branch to branch? Read up on, and observe, different flight patterns. Birds fly in many different ways. Watch them sometime, you will be amazed.

Watching birds fly is often an inspiring experience. Some birds make song flights always in a specific form, hovering or descending in a particular way. Other birds sing from definite parts of a tree: some from the top, some from lower down, some form within the shrubbery.

Finally read what your bird identification guide says about distribution.

If the bird you think you have identified only occurs in Florida and places south of it – and you are in Oregon – it is most likely you have not got the correct bird.

Remember, birds migrate so sometime they are only in your area for a few months of the year.

Binoculars and Telescopes

Birds are often far away, relative to our eyesight.

For this reason, binoculars and birdwatching telescopes are readily available.

Sometimes the choice is bewildering and the advice confusing. The simplest advice I can give you is to say work out your budget and then try out what is available. Do not be in a hurry, give yourself time to shop around. Remember, for most people this is a reasonably expensive outlay – especially telescopes – and you will be stuck with what you buy for many years.

bird watcher trying to identify a bird

With binoculars, do not go for huge magnifications and zooms – these are hard to hold steady and generally have lower quality optics. Look for how much light they let in. Basically the larger the diametre of the front lens, the more light you will have on the image.

Remember, you will not always be using your binoculars in good clear weather. A rain-guard is a useful addition.

Stick to magnifications of between X7 and X10, anything larger becomes unwieldy. Higher magnifications also mean less light on the image your eye receives. Finally buy your binoculars first and get used to doing a bit of birding before you think of buying a telescope.

Bird Identification Via Sound

It is important to remember that birds are not just visual images, they make sounds as well.

Many birds make little noises all the time and these are known as calls. Less frequently heard, but often easier to distinguish, are songs.

Bird calls are an excellent way of getting to know what birds are around you because you often can hear the calls way before you see the bird, especially in woods or forests.

You can learn a bird’s calls by watching it and listening, but you will pick things up much more quickly if you:

  1. Buy some CDs or download other digital recordings of bird sounds
  2. Join a bird watching group or go on an identification course.

I would recommend joining a group, or society. Many societies like American Birding Association, eBird, Ausbird (Australia) and Dutch Birding (holland) have local groups that organise outings.

There are also many other local groups which organise walks lead by someone knowledgeable. Forestry, National Parks and Conservation Organisations are a good place to start. Also many colleges will hold occasional, or regular courses on bird identification.

What Next

Well, I hope this basic guide to bird identification – and my wonderful colored drawing – have been helpful!

Perhaps now you’d like to learn more about moulting.

Photo of author

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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