Bird ID Tips
Bird identification can be extremely challenging and in some cases impossible. Many backyard birds are easy to identify because they are so common and you see them so often, but identification skills are crucial when in the field and especially when you travel away from home. There are many skills that one should develop before trying to bird away from home because it will make the experience so much more enjoyable.
The first tip is to look for the habitat of a bird. The environment you are in and your location can help you immensely. When birding, you should know the type of environments you will be in before you go. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that you would see a songbird in a river, but rather you would see a waterbird like a duck, wading bird, or pelicaniform. Range maps help a lot too. One example is the Pygmy Nuthatch and the Brown-headed Nuthatch. These species look similar, but the Pygmy Nuthatch lives in the Western United States whereas the Brown-headed Nuthatch prefers the East. Before confirming an unusual species of bird, consider the time of year of the identification, as some birds are only seen in areas in the winter, summer or migration, and think about the probability of that bird being there. A bird not shown in an area on a range map is unlikely to be there, and also if it is not the right time of year to see that bird there. Ebird.com can help with this.
The second tip is size and shape of a bird and its body parts. When you see a bird of prey, any eagle is bigger than a hawk, and hawks are bigger than falcons. Identifying by silhouette is very useful because instead of having to look through your binoculars at every single bird, you can simply glance at them from a distance and identify them. One personal example was when a smallish bird flew over the heads of everyone in my birding group on a field trip with the Georgia Ornithological Society. It landed in a tree about 150 feet away. I knew the species before everyone else because I could tell it was an Eastern Meadowlark just by the silhouette without using my binoculars. Another useful size identification tip is to compare the bird’s size and shape you are seeing with common birds you know. Anything that works for you is fine, but to give you an example, many people use a sparrow, robin, and a crow to compare to. Comparing the size (especially height) of birds close to each other helps also. Downy Woodpeckers and Hairy Woodpeckers are easiest to tell apart if they are seen within the same field of view. This is especially helpful when looking at big groups of peeps (group of mixed shorebirds). In a group of shorebirds with Willets, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Western Sandpipers, the Willets will be the tallest, then the Ruddy Turnstones, then the Sanderlings, and finally the small Western Sandpiper. Size and shape of the bill is a good indicator as well. Chickadees and nuthatches are relatively the same size, but nuthatches have longer and bigger bills.
The third identification tip is color pattern. Many species of birds are so easy to identify because of their amazing and unusual color, but looking for streaks rather than spots, and the overall color pattern rather than each feather is more useful. Many species have white and black patterns or brown and white patterns, but noticing the pattern of the colors can help tell them apart. For example, the Brown Thrasher and the Wood Thrush are similar, but the Wood Thrush has black spotting on its breast rather than the black streaks found on the Brown Thrasher.
One of the biggest identification skills is the behavior of birds. The first behavior to look for is the posture of a bird. American Robins are sit more upright and show their pride, but House Sparrows stand more hunched over. Movement is another obvious behavior. Osprey, Northern Gannets and Brown Pelicans can be identified solely by the way they dive into the water. Sanderlings can be identified by the way they run quickly along the ground at the edges of the shore. Many small songbirds flit and dart around in the tree tops looking for food. Flight pattern helps as well to identify types of birds. Vultures and buteos soar, smaller birds like woodpeckers and finches bounce up and down during flight, falcons beat their wings very strongly, accipiters and waterbirds fly straight, and many birds like some wading birds fly very gracefully. Foraging style is another behavior. Examples include insect eaters like flycatchers and swallows sometimes sit on open perches looking for insects flying by, Red-breasted Mergansers, loons and Anhingas dive for fish while dabblers like American Black Ducks and Mallards forage from the surface, Belted Kingfishers hover over the water scanning for fish, Red Crossbills use their strange bills to pry open pinecones, dowhitchers and Wilson Snipes bob their head up and down with their beaks in the ground rapidly, skimmers use their abnormally long lower mandibles to skim along the water for fish, and ground feeding birds like Mourning Doves, Brown Thrashers and quails forage on the ground and under the leaves. Flock size is another behavioral identification skill. Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starlings often are found in bigger flocks, herons can be found in smaller flocks, and Belted Kingfishers are often found alone when they forage.
A fabulous identification skill is looking for field marks. Learning the topography of a bird is useful in this manner. For example, Ruby-crowned Kinglets can be distinguished from Golden-crowned Kinglets by the white space around their eye, called the eyering. Also, Black Vultures have white on their wingtips, which helps distinguish it from the Turkey Vulture.
One of the best and most important tips is to identify birds by their songs and calls. There are so many birds that I identify by sound solely, and knowing what birds are singing is quite fun. Many people have their own ways to learn songs, but some ways that are helpful is to buy a CD that teaches you how, to listen to the songs over and over, or to record the songs yourself and then use Raven Lite 1.0 to make sonograms and waveforms to visualize the songs. However, one of the best ways to learn is to simply go out in the field and associate the song with the bird you are hearing. There are a variety of things you should look for when you listen to a song: the pitch, tone, and rythym of the songs are important. As far as pitch goes, bigger birds usually have deeper voices and smaller birds usually have higher pitched voices. For tone, think of how the song sounds, whether it is a trill, whistle, harsh note, very liquid song, or one that can be explaned with a mnemonic. Finally, many birds have a song with a very fast rythym and many have longer spaces of time between the notes.
Finally, learning the differences between hard to tell species is useful. Black-capped Chickadees have a slighly lighter wingbar and a two-note song as opposed to the darker wingbar and the four note song of the Carolina Chickadee. This is also true for Downy Woodpeckers and Hairy Woodpeckers, which also have different songs. The Greater Yellowlegs has a longer bill compared to the length of its head than the Lesser Yellowlegs. The Cooper’s Hawk has a longer head compared to the rest of its body than the Sharp-shinned Hawk.