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Winter Bird Identification Tips

How to Identify Birds in Winter


Winter American Goldfinch

Winter birds can be hard to identify without their bright breeding plumage.

Manjith Kainickara

It can be difficult to identify birds in winter when many species lack their bright breeding plumage, but it can also be a wonderful season to sharpen your bird identification skills.

How Winter Birds Look Different

Not all birds have seasonal plumages, but the species that do can look radically different in the winter when they lose their distinctive breeding colors and markings. Winter birds are often dull, with less color and blurred markings that help camouflage them against winter's hungry predators. In many seasonal species, male and female birds look very similar in winter, even though their breeding plumages may be much different. The colors of birds' feet, legs and bills can also change in different seasons, and even species that may look very different from one another in the summer can look remarkably similar in winter. This can make identification of winter birds a challenge, but careful preparation and observation can make it easier.

Equipment for Winter Bird Identification

A well-equipped birder is better prepared for properly identifying winter birds. Supplies needed to identify winter birds include:

  • Field Guide: A good field guide that includes both breeding and non-breeding plumage variations can be a superb tool for distinguishing winter birds. Choose a guide that includes the common winter birds in your region, and study the different plumages carefully to recognize their winter colors.

  • Optics: Birding binoculars that will resist harsh cold and different weather conditions without fogging up are best for winter birding. Light levels can vary widely in winter as well, and optics with larger apertures will capture more light for an accurate image.

  • Winter Birding Gear: For birding in the winter, it is important to be equipped for harsh weather conditions. Choose clothing suitable for the climate, and be prepared for swift weather changes and emergency situations.

  • Camera: A good digital camera can be helpful for identifying winter birds, allowing you to capture bird images for detailed study at your leisure instead of spending more time in potentially cold and uncomfortable conditions. A strong optical zoom can also help enlarge birds without losing clarity or detail.

Identifying Winter Birds by Sight

Because birds often look dull and plain in the winter, it can be more difficult to identify them by sight alone. Knowing what clues to look for, however, can help you be confident in identifying the winter birds you see. To identify winter birds, watch for…

  • Size: How big is the bird? How are its head, wings, tail and body proportioned to one another?

  • Shape: What is the bird's general shape and posture? How does it change shape with different movements?

  • Color: What color is the overall plumage? What different colors are visible on different body parts, including the bill, legs and feet?

  • Markings: What distinctive markings are on the face, breast, wings and tail? Are the markings sharp or blurred?

  • Bill: What size and shape is the bill? What color is it?

With careful observation, it is possible to identify many winter bird species by sight alone. Birders who can spend more time observing the birds they wish to identify, however, will have a better chance of accurately identifying each one.

Other Clues for Winter Bird Identification

When a winter bird can't be conclusively identified just by the way it looks, other clues can help confirm an identification.

  • Range: What is the bird's expected winter range? Are irruptions or vagrant birds common with the species and possible in your area? Is the habitat appropriate for the species?

  • Behavior: How is the bird behaving? Where does it feed, and what is it eating? Is it hopping, walking or creeping? What flight pattern does it have?

  • Sounds: What sounds does the species make? Is it singing or just calling? Does it make any nonverbal sounds?

  • Companions: Is the flock a single species or mixed with several species? How are the birds interacting?

Identifying birds in winter is not so different from bird identification at any time of year, but it takes more attention to detail and careful observation to accurately identify plain winter birds. With patience and practice, however, every birder can be confident about the birds they see in the coldest season.

Photo – Winter American Goldfinch © Manjith Kainickara

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