From William Webb,
Your Guide to
Birding / Wild Birds.
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Beginning birders can improve their birding experience by not only learning how to spot wild birds , but also learning basic bird identification skills. Bird identification entails observing a bird’s location, habitat, behavior, and field marks.

The following describes how to observe a bird’s location, habitat, behavior, and field marks as a first step to identifying wild birds. The final step to identify a bird is to consult a good bird guide book.

1. Location

A bird’s location is often an important clue for identification. Where did you see your bird? In western North America or eastern North America? In Manitoba or in Alabama? Most species have a limited range, and this can help in the identification process. Species descriptions in most field guides typically show the geographic range – which for many varies seasonally.

2. Habitat

A bird’s habitat can be an important clue for identification, especially for habitat specialists. Habitat specialists are usually found in a small number of habitat types. For example, the American Dipper is normally found along mountain streams, and the Gray Kingbird is most common along the Florida coast. On the other hand, some species are found in a wide array of habitats, such as the Barn Owl or the Common Raven. Other species are restricted to mainly one type of habitat such as saltwater, freshwater, forests, desert, scrub, or urban habitats. Consult your field guide for species-specific habitat associations.

3. Behavior

Often a bird’s behavior can be an important tip for identification. Careful attention to a bird’s sounds, feeding mode, and flight patterns can often narrow down the list of candidate species. Swifts and swallows bear a superficial resemblance to each other, and both groups of birds forage for aerial insects, but swifts often fly much higher than swallows. The Brown Creeper and our four nuthatch species all forage for insects on tree trunks and branches, but only the Brown Creeper spirals upward as it climbs tree trunks.

Many species produce distinctive sounds useful for identification. Listen to the sounds a bird produces, and compare with the written description provided in a field guide, or compare with birds recordings.

4. Body Size

Photo © William Webb

Body size varies tremendously, and is an important initial clue for identification. It is important to notice whether the bird is very large (like a hawk or an eagle), intermediate (like a crow), small (like a robin), very small (like a sparrow), or tiny (like a bushtit or a hummingbird).

5. Bill Morphology

Photo © William Webb

Bill size and shape reveals much about the manner in which birds obtain their food. Eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures have sharply-curved bills designed for tearing flesh. Sparrows have short, conical bills adapted for cracking open seeds. Warblers and many other insectivores have small narrow bills designed for gleaning insects from vegetation. Crows and jays have intermediate-sized bills that they use to consume a wide variety of foods. Hummingbirds have very long, narrow bills for drinking flower nectar.

6. Feet

Foot size and shape varies widely and can also help with identification. The different types of bird feet are adaptations to the lifestyles of each species. Ducks, geese, seabirds, and other aquatic species have webbed feet useful for swimming on the surface, and sometimes below water. Hawks and other birds of prey have sharp talons which they use to procure and kill their prey. Our most abundant, and most familiar birds are the passerines (also known as the perching birds). These birds have extra long toes well-suited for perching on vegetation and other structures.

7. Coloration

Photo © Rosa Hatfield

Coloration is always an important field mark for identification. Coloration can vary tremendously between different species, and often within species depending on location, season, gender, and age. It is always best to consult a field guide for the specific field marks related to coloration, especially when comparing species with complex coloration, and when comparing species that bear a close resemblance. There are a number of bird groups in which it can be especially difficult to discriminate between species, including sparrows, warblers, gulls, flycatchers, and sandpipers.