Wild Bird Identification Tips

Are you an expert in wild bird identification? No, well neither am I.

I enjoy taking birding trips, seeing new wild birds and practicing my wild bird identification skills. Bird watching for me, is all about the thrill of the hunt - the hunt for wild birds that I have never seen before.

Bird Identification

If you are new to bird watching, the best place to start identifying wild birds is right in your own backyard at your bird feeders. I would guess that you know what an American Robin looks like or perhaps a Blue Jay. You probably learned the names of those birds and others by seeing them often. Knowing the names of a few birds is a great start. You now have reference points that will help you when you see less common wild birds.

Why is wild bird identification important?

Identifying the wild birds in your backyard will make it easier to learn about them from field guides or other reference books. It will also be helpful if you are keeping a list of wild birds that you see or if you are participating in the Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count or a local bird count. You may also want to brag to your birding friends about seeing a rare bird for your area, such as the Northern Shrike (the latest addition to my life list).

Knowing the names of the wild birds visiting your feeders will help you learn more about them. You will be able to research what they eat, their mating habits, migration patterns and more. This will make it possible for you to attract even more wild birds into your yard.

There are a few things you will need for wild bird identification: a good field guide, a pair of binoculars for birding and a notepad and pencil. In the beginning you may find that a camera is helpful, but it is not necessary. There is even birding software available, which can be very helpful.

Wild bird identification will be easier if you follow a process. The first thing you must do is become comfortable with how your field guide works. It will normally categorize birds by habitat, feeding habits or size. No two birding field guides are the same. Practice in your backyard with birds that you are familiar with. How fast can you find a cardinal or a chickadee in your field guide?

When you see an unfamiliar bird you may only have a few seconds to identify it, so what are you looking for?

When looking at a bird what do you see? Legs, wings, a bill, the shape of the tail, these are all important. But what about the eye-ring, the secondaries, or the median line? As you can see below, there are many parts to a wild bird. They are not always important for wild bird identification. But if you see that the bird you are trying to identify has a white median line, you should write it down.

Yellow Breasted Chat

Take some notes or even make a quick sketch, but here is what you need to know:

  • Size: Compare it to those birds that you already know. Is it bigger than a sparrow? Smaller than a robin? Is it plump or thin?
  • Bill: Is it long or short? Curved or straight? What color is it?
  • Tail: Is it forked, rounded, square or notched?
  • Wings: Are they long or short? Pointed or curved?
  • Colors: Colors can be tricky. Distance and lighting can make colors hard to identify. So get as close as you can and use your binoculars. Look for overall color. Then look for facial colors, wing colors, tail colors and any other color that varies from the main color. Identify spots and stripes if present.
  • Activity: What is the bird doing? Swimming, climbing trees, foraging on the ground, write it down.
  • Surroundings: Identifying the habitat is also important. Are you deep in the forest, near water, in a meadow?

You will have no trouble identifying a wild bird if you answer these questions. I can not stress enough the need to make notes. You may see 10 or more birds that are unfamiliar to you in one outing. If you do not write down notes, chances are you will have difficulty remembering what you saw.

One last wild bird identification tip, listen. On any birding trip you are likely to hear more wild birds than you see. Use the sounds of the wild birds as an invitation to find them. Become familiar with their calls by listening to one of the many CDs available on the market. If you hear the drumming of a Ruffed Grouse, you will know to look low to the ground. But if you hear the wail of a Common Loon, then you know that there is a lake nearby  So if you are not seeing many birds, stop and listen, you may be surprised at what you hear.

As I said before, your backyard is the best place to practice wild bird identification. Once you feel ready, find a birding hotspot near you and start working on that life list.

Need Help Identifying A Backyard Bird?

Ask away! For bird identification, if possible, upload a photo of the bird, and our audience of readers will help identify it! The maximum image size accepted is 800x600. You will need to resize any photo larger than 800x600 pixels using your graphics software or a free Web-based resizer, such as Pic Monkey.

What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...

bright orange bird with no black marks 
today I saw a bright orange bird with no black marks seen in my back yard in an apple tree. accompanied by catbirds and another bright orange bird that …

Unknown finch-like 
For the past few days, a bird, about the size of finch (although not as stocky), with a yellow-orange beak, black crown, grey-fawn breast, and brown wings. …

Great Blue Heron photo 
Here is a picture I took of a Great Blue Heron in the Japanese Gardens at the Seattle Arboretum.

Texas Migrating Bird? 
Large grey bird with a long neck and a very long beak. Looks like a velocaraptor from the neck and head. Has some white on its body.

Name that bird  
Size: About the size of a small pigeon stout body short legs his eyes are in the front of its head Bill: long and narrow looks to be brown in color …

Two of these birds came to our bird feeder today. 
Today was the first time the two birds came to our yard. They have a black head, and looks like a pale yellow beak. The chest is pure white escept for …

wild bird 
This bird comes in flocks of 50 to 100. It is about the same size as a cardinal. It walks rather rather than hops. It has short black beak. it is brown …

Help! Found this baby bird! 
Hi! I found this little guy on the ground after a bad storm. He was so listless I thought he was dead. Being a nurse, I wanted to try to help him, called …

jay? crow family?  
Seattle, pacific northwest, in a tree, larger than a robin, smaller than a large crow crown & back black/blue-gray, breast, tail, wings also rest of …

We live in eastern Wyoming/western SD border. Saw a perching bird which is unfamiliar. Any ideas? It had a long narrow dark beak,tufted head, yellow …

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