How to Identify Birds



Being able to identify the birds you see in the field not only increases the value of an outdoor experience but can also help conserve birds and their habitats. If you are interested in getting to know the birds you see and reporting your records to databases used by scientists and conservationists, these simple steps will help you make a simple analysis of the birds you see. With a little practice, you will be able to identify the birds quickly and correctly. There are more than 10,300 bird species throughout the world, which have been classified by ornithologists into orders, families, and genera.

The classification (Taxonomic) of the birds results in groups of species that share similar characteristics.

Placing a bird in a group is a good start since each group has characteristics in common such as shape, size, behavior, habitat use, and plumage pattern and color.

Using as a reference the shapes and sizes of common birds, such as sparrows, doves, ducks, and herons, one can begin the process of identification. Then take note of the habitat where you see them, take note of their behavior, and describe their plumage as tools to arrive at the identity of the bird. At this point, it may be a matter of eliminating other possibilities before you get to the identity of the bird.

With time and practice, you will see a bird, and without thinking, you will know what it is. Reaching this level of expertise is truly rewarding!

1. Bird shape

To start identifying birds you need a field guide or bird book (Guide). It is a good idea to read the descriptions of each bird group in the Guide. Starting with the more common and distinctive groups will help you have comparative references for when you move on to learn about groups of less distinctive bird shapes. If you make picking up the Guide and read for a short period of time every day, you will be able to recognize gulls, herons and egrets, pigeons, and parrots, just to name a few birds with distinctive shapes.  So far we are on our way to put the bird you see inside a group.

2. Bird Size

Most species within each group of birds are similar in size. However, some groups have species with different sizes. For example, most gulls and ducks are similar in size. Owls differ in size ranging from the very small pygmy owls to owls as large as a Great-horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).

bird size
These two common egrets are similar in appearance, but the Great Egret (Ardea alba) (Left) is larger than the smaller Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) (Right).

The size is easy to distinguish when the bird is in the company of another known bird(s) that serves as a reference. But things get a little harder when the bird is alone. In this case, the size can be compared to the size of a bird that we know well. For example, if one sees a small owl, it may be larger or smaller than a domestic dove or it may be huge and with horns in which case it would only be a Great-horned Owl. If it is a heron, it could be a greater or smaller than the common Cattle Egret we all know.

3. Bird Behavior

Once we have an idea of the shape and size you need to take note of the behavior of the bird, that is, what it does. Up to this point, we already have an idea about whether the bird is a dove, a heron, a duck, or something that looks like a sparrow.

The Blue-Black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina) jumps on a branch when it sings. This behavior is unique and leads to the identification of this bird. Video by: Nestor Ccacya Baca.

If it is something that looks like a dove, is it alone? or with another bird (a pair)? or in a flock ?. If it is a heron, is it still? lurking at something? or walks looking for a prey?. If it is a duck, does it dive and disappear underwater? Or just stick its head in the water?. If it is something that looks like a sparrow does it move fast or slowly through the foliage? or perches on an exposed branch and stays still.

Each behavioral detail defines a group and sometimes the behavior is so unique that it provides a definitive clue to identify the bird.

4.  Habitat Type

Birds have wings and can fly but are restricted to specific habitats. A description of the habitat type will provide essential information on the identification of a bird.

One of the reasons why there are so many species of birds is that perhaps more than in another group of vertebrates, they have specialized in using specific habitats.

Taking note of the type of habitat in many cases helps eliminate competing possibilities and may narrow down available options to one or two. One would not expect to see a gull looking for insects in the foliage of a tree. Each species is adapted to search for food, find mates, and seek shelter in a specific habitat.

These two species are extremely similar in plumage but use different habitats. The Lesser Kiskadee (Pitangus lictor) (Left) is always perched near or close over the water. The Great Kiskadee (Pintangus sulphuratus) (Right) is not associated with water and generally forages high above the ground.

5. Color and plumage patterns

It is perhaps surprising that the section of color and plumage patterns is near the end. The fact is that the coloration of a bird is perhaps the aspect leading to most confusion. The color of feathers in the field is affected by the light, the angle, and distance from where the bird is seen. In addition, the plumage of a bird varies with sex, age, and time of the year. Unless the bird has a unique coloration like that of a Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) it is likely that there are several species with a similar plumage.

Ideally, color and plumage patterns should be used as additional information to the shape, size, behavior, and bird habitat where the sighting is made.

Read about plumage aberrations such as Bird Leucism, Bird Melanism, Bird Albinism, Bird Xanthochromism.

6. Location and elevation of the Sighting

Just as each species of bird uses a specific type of habitat, they are also restricted to different elevations above sea level and regions. Several species of birds are very similar y size, behavior, habitat use and appearance, but occur in separate regions and elevations. Thus, taking note of the region and elevation where one is observing birds will help to define which of the similar species is more likely to occur in such location.

The Cinereous Finch (Piezorina cinerea) (Right) is very similar to the Slender-billed Finch (Xenospingus concolor) (Right), but it would not be expected to see them together since each species is only found in different regions.) Photos: Enrique Kindliman.

Final Remarks

A problem commonly seen among people beginning with birds is that when they see a bird they immediately take the Guide to identify it based mainly on the colors of the bird. This strategy is more likely to result in frustration with so many possibilities of birds with similar colors and shapes.

It is better to take a strategy based on aspects that range from the most general (groups) to the most specific such as colors of the plumage, region, and elevation of the sighting.

The good thing about this approach is that the Guides are organized in groups and take a similar approach to identify birds. This is to say that ducks are with other ducks, and parrots with other parrots. Additionally, books have a description for each group of birds and a refined description for each species. If one adopts the approach proposed in this article, it is more likely that with the help of a Guide you will arrive at the correct identification of the bird.

It is quite likely that one will make mistakes, but even experts make mistakes. Asking people who have more experience will help you sort through the many possibilities and help learn to identify birds faster. Once you learn a group of birds or the bird community of a particular habitat type you will notice a bird you have not seen there before and repeat the process to identify it.

With time and patience, you will find that you know the birds at your favorite locations and will want to explore new locations and habitats for new challenges. The anticipation during the period of preparation to bird a new location and the moment you see and identify the bird is one of the most rewarding aspects of birding. So pick up a Guide and go through these steps. Who knows where in the world new locations, habitats, and birding challenges will take you.

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