Learning to identify birds is a lifelong exercise in patience and acquired skill – beginners can quickly master the basics and gain that confidence in assertion, and experts can quickly forget them, jumping ahead using too much in-depth knowledge and ultimately missing an obvious element.
Applying a consistent checking regime will often return the right result.
Most beginners struggle with looking past the colour of the target bird.
Don’t get us wrong, there is absolutely no need to have to identify birds to enjoy watching them, but if your mind is taking those enquiring steps and you want to know just what it is you are looking at, there are a few helpful hints that should get you on the way to that confidence.
Four steps to knowledge?
Most How-To-ID guides will tell you that there are four distinct categories to master for successful identification: size & shape, behaviour, plumage, and habitat.
That is completely true, but don’t beat yourself up if you’ve always found that you focus on one more than the others. Most beginners struggle with looking past the colour of the target bird, especially if it is a brightly-coloured one, as for some reason our minds tend to hone in on that.
Visual management abounds in our everyday lives whether we realise it or not – red for stop, danger, or forbidden acts like ‘No Smoking’ signs, yellow lines on a floor indicating access needed, green to proceed or to show something is working correctly.
Colours are powerful elements and do play their part in bird identification, but it’s a really good idea to put that to one side at the beginning and get yourself familiar with the other aspects of a bird.
Also remember, those beautiful illustrations or photographs in field guides only show that particular bird in that particular moment in time; bird plumage can drastically change depending on the season, the age of the bird, whether they are or have been moulting, what they have managed to eat, and there are even aberrations or mutations to account for, such as leucism or albinism.
Colours are powerful elements and do play their part in bird identification, but it’s a really good idea to put that to one side at the beginning.
So, in this post we’ll focus solely on the other immediately noticeable things about a bird – its shape, andhow big it is.
When field guides talk about the size of a bird, they are almost always meaning the lengthfrom the tip of the tail to the tip of the beak; weight is never used to determine size.
Original measurement methods that all field guides are now based on were from the times when collectors or scientists would lay a dead specimen flat on a board, the feet were tucked in, and the head was extended back so that the beak was pointing out along the body line, and measured from there.
here is now a universal agreement that there are either small, medium, large, or very large birds.
Hummingbirds, sparrows, chickadees, finches, juncos, warblers: these all fall into the small category along with most common songbirds; thrushes, shrikes, orioles, quite a few woodpeckers, some owls, grackles: these could all be classed as medium.
Then hawks, vultures, herons and other waders, many sea birds like gannets and a number of gulls are considered large; finally, the giants of the bird world like cranes, storks, ostriches, a few eagles.
Depending on which guide you read, some birds can be one or the other – starlings can be classed as small and medium, but they are not as small as sparrows, and not as big as a jay.
Some like the woodpeckers cross three – the downy woodpecker of North America is the same size as a sparrow but the great slaty woodpecker of the Indian subcontinent is the same size as most buzzards.
Your estimate of size can be made easier if you use your target bird as a sort of ruler against the surrounding birds, or if you are already familiar with at least one species to compare it to, like a magpie, a robin, or a wren. After a while you will find yourself automatically classing them correctly.
If you can get your hands on one, a bird silhouette poster or chart is a great and inexpensive investment, as it not only helps you see different birds in shadow, which let’s face it, will happen a lot, it also puts them in relation to each other.
Size can be very difficult to judge especially if you are at a distance, or the bird is hunched up, so the next thing is to get a good idea of their overall shape.
The shape of things
Learning a bird’s shape will instantly help you disregard all manner of other bird types during your ID process. Woodpeckers have that upright, oval body, often distinct and angular head sporting a long pointed bill.
Magpies have plump, sizeable bodies and a long almost tattered looking tail. Finches will always look like finches: a seed-crushing wide yet short pointed bill on a small rounded head, topping off an oval body held in an upright posture, with a tail proportional to or just a bit shorter than the rest of it.
Wrens have such a giveaway shape, with their arrow-straight tails cocked up at 45° from a small horizontal oval body, where the absence of a neck shows a smaller head ending in a needle-like beak.
Wading birds tend to have elongated bodies and necks, and very noticeable long legs. Note the S shape of the heron or egret’s neck, the dangling legs of a crane or stork in flight.
The sum of its parts
Each component part requires scrutiny, too. Focus on the type and length of beak, wings, and tail and measure these up against the bird itself. How far does the tail go from the body? Is it short in comparison, like a nuthatch, or long like a swallow’s, or a widow-bird’s?
Do the wings occupy most of the back when not in flight, or just sit on the sides? Can you see the feet, and if so, are they webbed? What colour are they? How long are the legs?
Taking the time to look at the bird itself rather than the image in a guide is the most important part of learning to ID correctly.
When you come across birds who share all of the above similar features – they’re small, they have oval bodies, round heads and short legs - look at the pointy end of their face. One of the best parts of a bird to use for ID purposes is the beak.
Is it long, or curved, or short, thin? A bird’s beak will tell you almost everything about what and how it eats, and we go into that more here in a previous post. Flycatchers, like swallows, have broad and flat bills to snatch insects out of the air with.
Flickers have slightly down-turned bills. Finches have conical bills; warblers have needle bills. There will always be those exceptions to the rule, but this is generally how it goes.
t’s not just the Little Brown Jobs either - avocets have long upturned bills whereas curlews have long downturned bills. On a more advanced level, bills can help you differentiate between members of the same species too – the downy woodpecker and hairy woodpeckers are almost identical in terms of shape and size, plumage and behaviour, but the former has a very small bill compared to its head size, and the latter has an equal length bill to its head size.
This is a lot to take in but with practice, these basic steps will become second nature. Maybe you’ve never thought about a bird’s size or shape before, but once it’s been pointed out, you suddenly see it everywhere.
Taking the time to look at the bird itself rather than the image in a guide is the most important part of learning to ID correctly. The more features you identify through watching the bird, the more you’ll notice how that sets it apart from all the other birds that looked so similar just before.
Field guides are great, but nothing beats the real thing, so leave the book alone and get into the habit of noticing the things about the bird that you’ll read up on when the bird has flown away.
Seeing it in print and matching it up with what you remember is one of the best revelations you’ll experience on your ID journey.