As an avid bird watcher, I try to keep a record of every bird species I see. This means I need to be able to put a name on every bird I observe. Developing the skill of identifying birds is critical to good record keeping.
On a regular basis, I receive emails from individuals wanting help identifying the bird(s) in the pictures they have taken. I also visit with a lot of customers at the Bird Barn when they come in asking for bird identification help. Certainly, pictures are helpful. When it comes to bird identification, the old expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is very true.
The complexity of bird identification can be amplified by variation in plumage. For example, there is male plumage and female plumage, breeding plumage and non-breeding plumage, or juvenile plumage and adult plumage.
While plumage is a helpful clue, there are other factors to consider when studying birds. Bird identification is a lot like putting a puzzle together. If you get the right piece, it fits perfectly. If you are new to birding, or just want to improve your bird-identification skills, here are some tips to consider.
Size: Create your own size categories, such as larger than a robin, robin sized, sparrow-sized, and smaller than a sparrow. Determining the general size of the bird is a helpful piece of the puzzle as you narrow down the possibilities.
Color: This relates to plumage, or the coloration of the feathers. Look specifically for color on key parts of the body, such as the head, breast, belly, wings, back and tail. Most birds have a unique coloration pattern that is specific to that one species.
Beak Shape: The shape of the beak reveals a lot about what type of bird it could possibly be. For example, insect-eating varieties of birds usually have thin, pointed beaks. Seed-eating birds usually have conical shaped beaks for seed cracking. Birds of prey typically have hook-shaped beaks for ripping flesh.
Habitat: Ask questions, such as, where did I see the bird? Was it in a grassland? Was it in a pinyon/juniper habitat? Was it in a ponderosa pine forest? Was it in the water at one of our lakes? Was it in a riparian habitat? Birds are habitat specific. Knowing where you saw it is an important clue.
Behavior: What was the bird doing? Was it at a seed feeder? Was it at a nectar feeder? Was it feeding down on the ground, or was it moving quickly through foliage looking for insects? Behavior is an extremely important tip when trying to identify a bird.
Feeding: Foraging is closely related to behavior. The word used to describe how birds feed is “gleaning.” If the bird in question is feeding down on the ground, it is considered a “ground-gleaner,” such as a quail, towhee, dove, sparrow or junco. If the bird is eating in a tree or shrub, this is referred to as “foliage-gleaning” and the bird is probably an insect eater, such as a bushtit, warbler, kinglet or vireo. If the bird is feeding in sustained, continuous flight (“aerial-gleaning”), it is probably a swallow or a swift. What and how a bird eats says a lot about the bird.
Flight: How the bird flies is closely related to behavior, as well. Think of the difference between how a hummingbird flies compared to a red-tailed hawk. Making a note of how the bird flies can help classify the bird into a family of birds that share the same characteristic.
I invite you to try and use some of these identification tips in the coming week. Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn in Prescott, Arizona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.