It is easy to get frustrated birding when you see a new species but can’t identify it properly. Bird identification doesn’t have to be difficult, however, and these three easy steps can help you correctly identify any bird you find.
Step 1: Observation
Observation is the most critical step for identifying wild birds, but it is also the one that most birders don’t spend enough time on. Observing is more than just looking at a bird, it is noting any unusual markings, shapes or colors that can help clarify the bird’s identity.
When observing birds, look for these characteristics:
- Bill: Shape, color, length, curve and markings will show how the bird uses its bill and can be a key for proper identification. Also observe the size of the bill compared to the bird’s head and how high up on the head the bill reaches.
- Color: Overall body colors and special patches of color are one of the easiest clues to a bird’s identity. Check the abdomen, head, back, chest, outer tail feathers, legs, eyes and feathers around the eyes for different colors.
- Markings: Special markings can distinguish two closely related bird species. Look for stripes, dots and bands on the bird’s wings, head, tail and body. Note how clear or blurred they are.
- Size: A bird’s overall size may be an easy way to identify birds with similar colors and markings. Note the body length, wingspan and body proportions for accurate bird identification. If there is no way to measure the bird, compare its size to more familiar birds and objects for a rough size estimate.
- Habitat: Different birds occupy different territories. Observe the nearby habitat for clues to a bird’s identity. Characteristics such as the types of trees, density of plants, urbanization, water sources and elevation can be effective clues. Also note where the bird is observed – along the coast or inland, in a particular state, etc. – for comparison to current range maps for different species.
- Behavior: Observing how birds behave can be challenging but can also be critical for proper wild bird identification. Note sounds, flight patterns, where the bird lands, what it eats and how it interacts with other birds.
With so much to observe, even experienced birders can easily miss vital clues to a bird’s identity. A digital camera is very useful for capturing a bird’s appearance for later identification. Taking notes in a birding journal can also be useful.
Step 2: Research
After a bird has been carefully observed, the easiest way to make a positive bird identification is through careful research. Field guides are invaluable tools for determining which bird is which, and more detailed bird profiles offer extensive information on different bird species.
Experienced birders will always use more than one source to identify a new bird. One resource may match the bird’s behavior, while another is a better tool for comparing appearance characteristics. For a conclusive identification, the bird’s appearance, habitat and behavior should all match a number of resources.
Step 3: Compare Species
The third step in bird species identification is one that many birders frequently skip: comparing the bird they’ve found to similar species. It may be easy to identify a bird with a field guide or other resource if all you do is look at one type of bird, but comparing it with different species will ensure an accurate identification.
Western scrub-jays, for example, may seem easy to identify because of their bold coloration and fearless behavior. Yet the pinyon jay has very similar behavior and duller colors that could be confused through poor observations. The Florida scrub-jay has remarkably similar coloration and behavior, but can be positively identified by its much different range.
Still have doubts about a bird’s identity? Email me the bird’s photo and your observations for assistance!