Bird Identification Basics

Birds move quickly, alternating between searching for food and finding protective shelter. To be successful at bird identification, birders must act quickly too. There are a number of factors to take into consideration when identifying a bird, so how can anyone gather all of that information in the awfully short time a bird stays in one place? Here are some tips for beginning birders:

Begin with the birds at your feeders. As I mentioned in my previous article, Getting Started Identifying Birds, birds on your feeders will return repeatedly. They know an easy meal when they find one, and they will come back for more. Presumably, your feeder is near a window in your house, so you will be able to get a close up view. Keep your binoculars nearby for an even better view.

When you first look at the bird, take it all in. In the birding world this is referred to as GISS (pronounced JIZZ): “General Impression of Size and Shape.” Don’t focus on one feature too long, or the bird will be gone before you have enough information to take to a field guide. Take a snapshot in your head noting these features:

Size: Is this one of the larger birds that comes to your feeder, or smaller? How does its size compare to birds you know – about the size of a robin? a sparrow?

Body Shape: Is this bird chunky like a chickadee or slender like a nuthatch?

Beak Shape: Beak shape is a very helpful characteristic in identifying birds.

Beak shape varies by birds’ primary food source. Nuthatches need thin, sharp beaks to tap into and extract insects from the bark of a tree. Finches use their think, conical beaks for cracking seeds.

Over time, you will find yourself using size and shape features more and more. You’ll find yourself thinking…. is the beak more like the thick, powerful beak of a finch or more like the slender beak of a nuthatch? Does the body shape look more like a robin or a sparrow? Is it closer to the size of a blue jay or a finch? These mental references will help you be quicker and getting the “GISS” of the bird. And speed is a good thing in the birding world!

Color: What is the primary color of the bird?

Keep in mind that color can vary with the sex of a bird and the time of year. A male goldfinch in breeding plumage (spring and summer), for example, is a bright yellow whereas a female or a male in non-breeding plumage (fall and winter) is a drab tannish brown with just a hint of yellow. Most bird guides will show at least the male in breeding plumage and female. More comprehensive guides include males in non-breeding plumage as well as the variations likely to be seen in juvenile birds of the species.

Using these features, you will have a good shot at finding your bird in a field guide, particularly if you keep the habitat of the bird (backyard, open field, woods) and location (eastern U.S. western U.S., Maine birds, etc).

If you do not find your bird or have it narrowed down to a few, but need more information to make a positive identification look again (and again) at the bird and make note of the following:

Special Markings: Known as “field marks”, this refers to those unique features of a bird such as markings on the wing – does it have white or dark bars?, the chest – is it streaked or spotted?, tail – are there colored tips or streaks?, the head – is there a colored spot on the crown or back of the head? Are there lines by the eye?

Tail Size: Is the bird’s tail long like that of a mockingbird, medium like that of a robin, or short like that of a finch?

Tail Shape: Is the tail rounded like a jay’s? pointed like a mourning dove’s? notched like a goldfinch’s? forked like a barn swallow’s?

Behavior: How does the bird act? Does it feed on the ground or at the feeder? Does it forage among dead leaves on the ground like an ovenbird? Does it flick its tail a lot when perched like a phoebe? Or does it hold its tail down like a flycatcher? Does it dart quickly head-down trees like a nuthatch? Or does it creep up and spiral around tree trunks like a brown creeper? Or jerk its head while hammering into bark like a woodpecker?

Once you have gained some practice with the birds in your yard or at your feeder, trying taking your new-found skills on a walk through the neighborhood or nearby nature trail. You will be surprised how your skills build quickly over time and will feel thrilled by the growing database of birds you can identify from memory. Happy birding!

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