A few birds can be identified just by their plumage, but out in the cold light of day, sometimes it’s not that easy. A photo or illustration can often differ dramatically to the same bird in real life, so here’s some pointers for narrowing it all down.
There are some birds that are obvious at first glance, simply because of their colouring. Of course, at some point you’d have to have learnt what that bird was in the first place, but, and I mean this with no disrespect, once you’ve seen one puffin, you’ve seen them all. The same with toucans. They are simply unmistakable. But it’s highly unlikely those are the birds you’re hoping to ID in your average (sub)urban or rural environment.
Some birds undergo huge changes to their colouring for breeding season.
Plumage refers to the colour and pattern of a bird’s feathers, and whilst plumage can be all the colours of the rainbow, it’s not every often that all happens on the one bird.
You will need to keep a few things in the back of your mind each time you try and ID a bird. The time of year and place can dictate several things, with the most obvious issue being, is it breeding season, or wintering season? Some birds undergo huge changes to their colouring for breeding season, so much so that people who live in the wintering season parts of the world have no idea it’s the same bird, and vice versa. Birds also go through a process called moulting, the eventual replacement of every feather as the bird grows, feathers are damaged from injury or attack, or simple wear and tear. Getting a good long look at a bird and seeing it in various positions such as preening or flying is very useful too. Some birds look “nothing special” until they open their tail feathers in flight, and suddenly a striking white tail edged with thick notched black as with the northern wheatear is on display.
All the colours
First of all, here are the types of plumage that can be seen in almost every bird:
Natal: also known as birth plumage, this is the very fine, very fluffy covering that birds are born with, or that starts to appear a few days after birth. This plumage is often very bland, with no distinct markings across any of the parts of the body.
Juvenile: when the feathers have grown stronger and will start to show some differentiation across the body, wings, head and tail. Juvenile colours are again still quite bland, but can display some streaking or patching to serve as camouflage as well as some resemblance to adult plumage after a few months. Juveniles of dimorphic species (birds who show a distinct difference between the sexes) will always resemble the adult females. To differentiate, keep an eye out for any tufts of fluffy feathers still poking out, usually around the undertail and from underneath the wings.
Subadult plumage: birds whose life spans are somewhat longer than the average songbird, such as raptors and gulls, will take 2 or 3 years to reach sexual maturity. Again, like juvenile plumage, it lacks the distinct patterns of adult plumage.
Look at the Gouldian finch, a multicoloured bird if ever there was one.
Basic plumage: also known as winter plumage, non-breeding plumage, and eclipse plumage. Basic plumage is usually displayed for the majority of an annual cycle, and in dimorphic species males can resemble females. Basic plumage can have its own distinct qualities, but again tends to fall into the bland category.
Breeding plumage: also known as alternate, nuptial or spring plumage, the best time of the year to hone your ID skills is during the breeding seasons. This is when, for those species who undergo plumage change, all the colours come out. Some species like herons and cormorants will also grow long streamers. Some birds exhibit this plumage all summer lasting a few months, whereas others may only show it for a few weeks.
It really does pay off to learn some bird anatomy, as differences in plumage will always occur in specific areas on the bird. These differences are known in the birding world as field marks. A good field guide should already have illustrations usually near the beginning to show you the general field marks, but here are the main ones to look out for:
The upperparts (the back, rump and wings, and upper tail coverts),
The underparts (the breast, belly and undertail coverts),
The head (nape, crown, beak, cheeks, throat) and
Look at the Gouldian finch, a multicoloured bird if ever there was one. Here we have: a red crown and cheeks, black throat, green nape, purple breast, yellow belly, green back, grey rump, turquoise upper tail coverts, white undertail coverts, black tail feathers. There’s a lot going on there.
Breaking the marks down even further, the marks on a bird’s head can be a big clue as to who it is.
Look out for eyebrow stripes (or superciliary, a line over the eye), for example on female house sparrows; any eyelines (line through the eye), like on the male chipping sparrow, who also sports a chestnut cap; a crown stripe like the vibrant fiery orange red of the fire crest, running through the middle of the top of the head; whisker or moustache marks called malar stripes, often seen on falcons as a dark stripe beneath the eyes to help with the sun’s glare; and eye rings are a great way to ID a bird – for example the bright white eye ring on the otherwise olive green and grey silvereye from New Zealand.
The colour of a bird’s beak is also a distinguishing part to keep in mind: in some birds like the common kingfisher, the beaks are different colours depending on the sex: all black for males, and an orange lower beak and black upper beak for the females.
Lastly, look at those wings. (We could cover tails, but we’re sure you’re getting the gist, and also, unless you are very lucky and see the bird fly right past you several times, tails can be tricky to master, so we’ll leave that one with you for some homework…).
Practice on your garden birds, but leave the field guides alone at first.
Wing markings can be useful in the ID process as even if moulting is in full swing, the wings tend to stay the same. A lack of wing markings can also be just as good. Some shorebirds like godwits show distinctive flight marks when their wings are spread out, but for the stationary bird, try and focus on the following:
Wing bars (stripes across the folded wing); wing patches (colour on the wing, like the blue patch on Eurasian jays); primaries, the long flight feathers on the outer half of the wing, often compared to human fingers; secondaries (the flight feathers on the inner half of the wing) the speculum (a patch of colourful secondaries, which helps identify ducks, like the teal with its iridescent green patch) and finally wing tips, like the black tips on the white wings of the gannet.
Identifying birds can get a bit daunting and perhaps feel overly technical, but if you are really keen on learning how to do this, we promise it doesn’t take as long as you think it does. Practice on your garden birds, but leave the field guides alone at first. Write down the colours of the parts of the blue tit, the chickadee, or the magpie, and then check the book. You will find that as you grow in confidence with naming those marks, they will soon trip off the tongue, and before you know it, you’ll be saying: “that is definitely a goldfinch, look at its red mask, white cheeks, black crown and nape, and yellow wing bars!”