While bird identification can be challenging, it does not have to be daunting.
Experienced birders can often identify birds by sight and sound with ease. How do they identify birds? It’s not magic – it’s a process refined over years through practice. Identifying birds is like putting together a puzzle or solving a mystery. Each species has unique field marks, vocalizations, behaviors, and more. Patience and practice are necessities, and often, the best place to start is your backyard.
What is the first step to getting better at bird ID? Start with the right tools. Every birder needs a good field guide, and many options exist. Birding apps like the Birda App can also really assist bird ID in the field. A good pair of binoculars is also helpful to extend your field of view. If you’re looking for the right pair of binoculars, find out your perfect fit with our Best Lightweight Binoculars for Birdwatching.
An important note: even though this guide is written specifically with bird identification in North America in mind, many of the tools and tips hold true for how to identify birds anywhere in the world.
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Overview of How to Identify Birds
The clues to identifying any bird are similar. There are 6 variables to consider when learning how to identify birds; shape and size, field marks, behavior, habitat, voice, and geographic location (range). One trait alone may not always help you solve the bird identification puzzle, but the more you observe, the more chances you have to identify a bird.
For example, compare an unknown backyard visitor to the American Robin, a bird familiar to most observers in the US. Then look at a field guide to discover where the clues lead.
- Shape and size: The bird you are looking at is smaller than a robin, even smaller than a sparrow, almost tiny, with a cocked tail.
- Plumage and field marks: It is brown overall, lighter below, and almost chestnut above.
- Behavior: It’s vocal and active, quickly moving across the ground and low through trees as it searches for insects.
- Habitat: It seems to like backyards and parks, especially with small trees and shrubs present.
- Season and range: It is May, and the bird is in a New Jersey backyard with shrubs, small trees, and a flower garden.
- Voice: A loud, chattering song that sounds like a sewing machine, repeated over and over starting at daybreak.
Have you guessed the mystery species? It’s a House Wren, familiar to birders across the United States and Canada.
We’ll go over the groups of identification features you might want to pay attention to when you’re learning how to identify birds. Are you new to birdwatching? Here’s the ultimate guide on How to start Birdwatching.
How to Identify Birds
Group and Classification
With over 800 species of birds in North America, being able to narrow your choices down quickly is a necessity. Scientists classify all living organisms through a hierarchy of taxonomic ranks, with all birds making up the class Aves. Below class is the taxonomic rank called family.
According to the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, the taxonomic authority used by most scientists, researchers, and birders in North America, there are 249 different families of birds. Many are familiar to even non-birders, like Pelicans (Pelecanidae) or Crows, Jays, and Magpies (Corvidae). Some families are large, such as Pigeons and Doves (Columbidae), which consist of 353 species. On the other hand, there are single-species (monotypic) families, like Limpkin (Aramidae) and Osprey (Pandionidae).
Each family has traits that are unique to that family. When learning how to identify birds, noting that a bird is grey isn’t as useful as recognizing that it’s a grey owl or a gray sparrow-like bird. By honing it down to the family level or to a group of families, you’ll be closer to learning how to identify birds. You’ll even learn the subgroups in each family as you go along.
Shape and Size
A bird’s body and bill type help to place it in the right group, also known as its family. While it’s easy to place some species, like a Mallard or Herring Gull, others, like Eastern Bluebird or Lapland Longspur, can be more challenging when learning how to identify birds.
- Identification – use the free Birda app to identify any bird. Simply log a bird as Unidentified and allow the community to help suggest what your species might be. Adding a photo and description can really help.
- Community sharing – share your bird findings with others and gain insights about local avian populations.
- Species guide – familiarise yourself with the birds close to you in your species guide, enhancing your understanding of their lives and journeys. Also seek other birders’ sightings to find out if this bird is close to you.
Even among closely related birds, practically no two species share the same exact shape. Sandpipers, for example, all differ in leg height, bill shape, neck length, tail length, and other shape elements. On some similar pairs of ducks, such as Greater and Lesser Scaup, the shape of the head and bill are some of the best ID clues. Even when you’ve identified a bird by some other means, studying its shape to recognize it in the future is a good idea.
Plumage and Field Marks
Plumage refers to a bird’s feathers’ pattern, color, and arrangement. Thus, the plumage of a Blue Jay would be primarily blue with a black necklace, blue crest, white wing markings, black lines on the tail, and a grey breast.
The fastest way to learn how to identify birds is to spend time familiarizing yourself with the birds that visit your backyard. A Blue Jay is straightforward – this species looks the same year-round, and both sexes have the same plumage. Another familiar backyard species, the Northern Cardinal, is sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females have different plumages.
Many species have an additional layer of plumage difference, as there are immature (non-adult) birds that look distinct from adults. Familiar species like tree swallow and chipping sparrow fall into this category. Finally, some species possess distinct breeding and non-breeding plumages, such as grebes and loons, plovers, and many New World Warblers (Parulidae) species, like Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers.
If you’re looking for a great bird species guide, the free Birda app has a great feature for you. Sign up to Birda and head to the Discover page to unlock species. Find out more about Birda’s intergrated Species Guide here.
Experienced birders tend to be patient observers. Learning how to identify birds is to begin watching the birds in your yard and take note of their behaviors:
- Do they congregate in flocks, or do they come to feed alone?
- What is their flight style?
- Are they shy or confiding?
- Where and how do they feed? Certain species will feed on the ground, some will spend hours at the same perch on a feeder, while others will fly in to grab a seed or piece of suet before flying off to consume their snack while hidden in a tree or bush.
These behaviors and other attributes will help point to a bird’s identity.
Learning how to identify birds is not only about how the bird looks, it’s about where the bird is too. Creatures on wings are highly mobile and can wander outside their typical habitats, especially during migration. But most of the time, habitat is an excellent clue. You might see a Horned Lark on the ground in a plowed field and a Red-eyed Vireo in a forest treetop, but you’re very unlikely to see them trade places.
Due to specialization and preferred food sources, even migrating birds are hard-pressed to wander. A few years ago, this author found a migrating Yellow-throated Warbler in a Washington, D.C., park consisting almost entirely of deciduous trees. This conifer-loving species found the only pine tree in that section of the park.
Keep in mind that some birds are more adaptable than others. You will rarely find a Saltmarsh Sparrow outside its namesake habitat, but species like Mourning Doves are home in urban and rural areas.
If you’re looking for more places in the US for birding, National Parks are some of the best locations to visit. Take a look at the Best USA Birdwatching Parks.
Learning how to identify birds using season can be helpful to determine your bird. Birds are surprisingly predictable regarding timing, as it’s a matter of life and death. Migration is about resources, and the level of sunlight triggers the migration response of many species. This is why the first Veery of the spring – a species that winters in South America – always appears in Washington, D.C., in late April.
Local books or birding locations feature on Birda can tell you about the seasonal occurrence of species in your area. Species that winter in Central or South America tend to migrate north on very strict schedules. Staying with Thrushes, the first Wood Thrush of the year in D.C., always appears mid April. Other austral wintering species have similar patterns, like the Acadian Flycatcher (last week of April) or Blackpoll Warbler (the first few days of May). Swainson’s Thrushes are so predictable that their stopover locations on each migration day vary no more than a few hundred yards each year! Find out more about this incredible journey here.
The trip back to the tropics can be less predictable. Whereas birds migrating to their breeding grounds are laser-focused on flying north (or south) to pair up and find the best nesting location, there’s less immediacy during fall migration. While adults and first-year birds stick to tried-and-true patterns, some individuals are prone to wander, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from where they’re expected to be found.
Finally, some species, like Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, and American Robin, are not 100% migratory. This means some birds will migrate while others will remain in your area year-round.
Following birds on their migration is fascinating, and the free Birda app has a fantastic way to visualise where your birds are going. Head to the Birda app and the Discovery Page to find Migration Maps.
Many bird species are wide-ranging, while others are restricted to a small region. Downy Woodpeckers are found across much of the United States and Canada, whereas the Chestnut-backed Chickadee is restricted to the Pacific coast, north of central California.
By familiarizing yourself with the expected species in your area, you will put yourself in a better position to make an identification.
Most birders start with a visual ID and don’t really tackle “birding by ear” until later. But if your mystery bird is making some distinct sound, it’s worthwhile to note it. While learning to bird by ear can be challenging, over-reliance on tools like Merlin will do more harm than good for new birders.
When learning how to identify birds by bird song, committing calls to memory is often the best way to understand bird vocalizations. The best way to learn them is by repeated and consistent listening, heading out for a walk and being able to identify birds with just your ears, or listening to a bird-call playlist on shuffle to really test your listening identification skills.
The more time you spend listening, the more you will learn about the vocalizations of the birds around you.
Tips to get started with learning how to identify birds;
- Consider how the bird looks and observe its colour, shape, family habits, and behaviour;
- Get yourself a small ID book or learn how to identify birds with the Free Birda App to encourage you to learn and identify the most widespread species in your area. See more of the Best Birdwatching Apps in the USA.
- Grab a sketchbook and draw some details, or write notes to remember important features of the birds you see;
- Jot down the season and location to compare to your ID books. Work out whether the bird you chose is likely;
- Join up with other birdwatchers and learn together. The Birda App is the best place to delve into the growing birding community;
- When you get the hang of it, begin adding birdsong to your skills and;
- Don’t give up! When you develop your skills, your confidence will grow too!