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Bird Identification

Basic bird identification clues you can look and listen for are the bird's silhouette, its plumage and coloration, its behavior, the habitat it is found in, and the songs, and calls it makes.  Look to see if there are identifiable field marks, such as wing bars, eye rings, or crowns.  The shape of the beak is often a big clue. Also consider the time of year; their plumage will change during different seasons. For beginning bird watchers, using pictures, and descriptions in a good field guide is a good place to start.  Many birds are hard to distinguish from each other, so it is a good idea to study an unfamiliar bird thoroughly before consulting your guide.  Expert birders learn to keep these pictures and descriptions, as well as other clues in their head.  There are some basic clues you can look, and listen for, such as the bird's shape or silhouette, its plumage and coloration, its behavior, its song or calls, and the habitat it is found it.   Here are a few of the clues that help expert birders identify birds.

Size
While not always the case, size can be a good indicator of the species of the bird you are watching or trying to identify.  Learn the general size of common bird types to help you with identification.  As an example most song birds such as robins, blue birds, or cardinals fit into a certain size group.  Raptors or birds of prey like eagles, hawks, and owls will usually be larger.  Birds like ducks, herons, Canadian geese or other waterfowl will fit another size.  Although this is very general it can help you pick out a single bird that is a different size than the others in a group or flock.

Shape or Silhouette
Bird shape and posture are the most important characteristics used to identify birds.  Most experts can identify a bird from its shape or silhouette because this is the least likely characteristic to change.

Things to look for are:  Body shape; is it compact, stocky or thin?  Is the beak conical like a cardinal or long and narrow like a humming bird?  The wings may be thin and pointed like a swallow or broad, and rounded like a hawk. The tail of a bird can have many variations. The tail can be notched like a swallow, long and pointed like a Morning dove, or rounded like a Blue jay.  The legs can be long like a Great blue heron, or short like a duck.  Birds of prey will have distinctive hooked beaks, and claws or talons for tearing meat.  Almost everyone can identify an owl, eagle or duck just from the shape of their heads.
Click for bird shape identification pages.  Our anatomy page has examples of the diversity of beaks and other bird parts.

Color and Pattern
Most people get into bird watching to see the beautiful colors.  The marks that distinguishing one bird form another are called field marks.  These include such things as breast spots, wing bars (thin lines along the wings), eye rings, eyebrows (lines over the eyes), eye lines (lines through the eyes) and many others.  Birds like cardinals, Blue jays, parrots, and orioles can all be identified by color.  Many birds can be identified from a distance by distinctive patterns.  Examples of birds that can be identified by patters are the Red winged blackbird with its distinctive red shoulder, Red headed woodpecker or flying waterfowl.

Bird Beaks
Look at the shape of a bird's bill in low light.  Cardinals, finches, and sparrows have short conical bills.  Woodpeckers have rigid powerful bills to chip away at wood.  Hawks, eagles, and owls have sharp, hooked bills for tearing meat.  Shorebirds have slender bills for probing into the sand.  Birds such as ducks have flat bills useful for filtering.  Most people are familiar with the long thin beak of a hummingbird.  Take a look at the anatomy section to see how specialization of beaks, bills, and feet is useful.
Songs and Calls
Most birds can be identified by their sounds. There are two major types of bird sound. Songs are usually by adult males during nesting or mating season. Calls are used all year long and can be warnings or interactions with other birds.
Behavior
With experience many birds can be identified from behavior. Many birds fly, walk or swim in identifiable ways that can be detected from far away.  How does the bird forage.  Nuthatches climb up and down tree trunks.  Juncos and towhees like to forage on the ground.  Flycatchers will sit on a high perch scanning for insects.  Birds like wrens will cock their tail over their back.  Sandpipers constantly bob up and down.  Woodpeckers fly in an undulating pattern where they rest between wing flaps.  Swallows are very graceful flyers that may be seen skimming over the surface of water.  Birds of prey like eagles and hawks may be seen soaring high in the air.
Habitat
Many bird species have specific habitats. The most obvious are ducks, and gulls being water birds. Experienced birders learn the habitats and range of different birds.
Bird Watching Time
Bird watching is growing in popularity.  Early morning before dawn is probably the best time for birding.  Songbirds are more likely to be seen shortly after dawn.  Eagles and hawks can be seen soaring high while they hunt after sunup.  Owls are more likely to be seen in the evening.
Bird Watching Equipment
Some items that might make more enjoyable are binoculars, a camera and some kind of system for keeping notes. The binocular-camera combination may be a convenient choice. Take a good field guide to identify birds.  You are best off wearing clothes with dull colors that blend into the background. Depending on the birds you are watching you may want to get rain gear, rubber boots and warm clothing.  For birds such as owls that you might look for in the evening a strong flashlight is also handy.  

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