Bird ID Advice

BIRD IDENTIFICATION Advice  (this comes from the Newburyport Birder’s Newsletter with slight modifications.)


Observation is the most critical step for identifying birds, but it is also the one step on which most birders don’t spend enough time.
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 is located.
  • Color: Overall body colors and special patches of color are two 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 bird identification. Pay attention to sounds, flight patterns, where a 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. Take a few quick notes on the bird’s appearance for later identification.

Do Your 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.

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.


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.

Some birds seem easy to identify because of their bold coloration and fearless behavior. But another bird might have similar behavior and duller colors that could be confused through poor observations.

Still have doubts about a bird’s identity?  Send your description of the bird or a photo to an expert or a group along with your observations for assistance!  Birders love to help one another.

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