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How do I identify a specific bird?

Identifying birds takes patience, practice, and careful observation. With over 10,000 species of birds in the world, it can seem daunting at first. However, by understanding some basic techniques and bird anatomy, you can learn to identify common birds in your area.

Study Bird Field Guides

A good field guide is essential for identifying birds. Look for a guide that covers the species found in your geographic area. Spend time studying the various bird families and getting to know their key characteristics. Pay attention to details like bill shape, plumage color patterns, body proportions, and behavior clues. High quality photographs, range maps, and comparison charts will aid identification. Some top field guides for North America include:

  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
  • Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America
  • Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America
  • Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

Learn Bird Anatomy

Understanding basic bird anatomy and terminology will help you describe key identification markers when trying to ID a bird:

Size and Shape

  • Bill – size, shape, curvature
  • Wings – length, wing bars, wing patches
  • Tail – length, shape, patterns
  • Legs – length, color
  • Body – plump or slender, crest/head tuft


  • Crown – top of head
  • Nape – back of neck
  • Throat – front of neck
  • Breast – belly area
  • Back – upper surface
  • Rump – base of tail
  • Look for any stripes, bars, spots, or patches

Use Binoculars and Field Guides Together

Using binoculars and your field guide together is key for proper bird ID. Here are some tips:

  • Get a good look at the bird through your binoculars, making note of key features
  • Refer to your guide to narrow down possibilities by family, habitat, and size
  • Look carefully at the plumage pattern and markings in your guide
  • Read descriptions of behavior, voice, range to further eliminate choices
  • Consider time of year to determine if plumage is breeding, winter, juvenile

Observe Behavior and Habitat

Careful observation of birds provides important clues beyond physical appearance. Pay attention to:

  • Flight pattern – soaring, undulating flight of hawks vs fluttering flight of songbirds
  • Behavior – swimming and diving waterfowl, stalking herons, ground foraging quail
  • Habitat – upland game birds in brushy fields, marsh birds in wetlands, woodpeckers in forests
  • Associations – flocks of blackbirds, mixed warbler feeding groups
  • Vocalizations – raucous crow caw, melodious warbler song, cooing dove
  • Time of day/year – nocturnal owls, migrating flocks, breeding displays

Practice Makes Perfect

Identifying birds takes patience and practice. The more time you spend observing and studying birds, the faster your ID skills will improve. Some tips for gaining experience:

  • Use apps like Merlin Bird ID or eBird to practice ID skills
  • Keep a notebook recording key details like date, location, plumage, behavior
  • Photograph unknown birds to study their features later
  • Join a local birding group or Audubon chapter for expert guidance
  • Visit diverse habitats to encounter new species – forests, wetlands, coasts
  • Talk to experienced birders to gain knowledge
  • Return to the same areas to grow familiar with resident species

Use Photography to Aid Identification

Photographing birds provides a record you can use to carefully study a bird’s plumage patterns and unique characteristics. When photographing to ID birds:

  • Get close-up, clear, well-lit photos showing key field marks
  • Try to photograph the whole bird as well as separate head shots, wing views, tail views, etc
  • Capture birds from multiple angles – side view, back view, underside
  • Return to photos later when you have more time to puzzle over identification
  • Keep a cataloged photo library you can consult again and again

Apps and Websites for Bird ID

Technology provides useful tools for identifying unknown birds. Here are some popular resources:

Field Guide Apps

  • Merlin Bird ID – identifies birds from photos, bird sounds, location and description
  • Audubon Bird Guide – 821 North American species with ID tips, range maps, songs
  • iBird Pro – enhanced field guide with 3D rotating images, quiz mode
  • Larkwire – learn bird songs and calls to aid identification

Citizen Science Websites

  • eBird – database to log sightings, explore bird observations, connect with experts
  • iNaturalist – community for recording and identifying wildlife observations
  • Project FeederWatch – survey of winter birds in backyards and communities

Online Quizzes

  • Cornell Lab Bird Academy – polish ID skills with informative quizzes
  • All About Birds ID Wizard – step-by-step quiz helps pin down unknown birds

Join a Birding Community

Connecting with other knowledgeable birders provides invaluable learning opportunities. Ways to engage include:

  • Local bird walks, talks, and classes – scan event listings at nature centers and parks
  • Birding festivals – often weekend-long events with field trips, lectures, workshops
  • Audubon Society chapters – dedicated to conservation and bird education
  • Birding Facebook groups – share sightings and photos, ask ID questions
  • eBird community – connect with birders worldwide

Final Tips for Bird Identification

  • Start by learning common backyard birds in your area
  • Carry binoculars and a field guide when outdoors birding
  • Pay equal attention to behavior and habitat as physical appearance
  • Take notes and photographs – compare images side-by-side with guide pictures
  • Learn bird anatomy and descriptive terminology
  • Study plumage details like bars, streaks, eye rings, patches
  • Practice makes perfect! Persistence and patience gives best results.


Identifying birds is a rewarding activity that can turn a routine walk into an exciting adventure. Approach it step-by-step: study field guides, learn anatomy, use technology, practice frequently, and connect with other birders. Time spent observing, gaining experience, and absorbing details will sharpen your identification skills. Soon you’ll be impressing others by naming each fluttering visitor to your backyard or local park.

Bird Group Key Identification Tips Example Species
Hawks and Eagles – Broad, rounded wings
– Hooked beaks
– Soaring flight
Red-tailed Hawk
Bald Eagle
Hummingbirds – Tiny size
– Long needle-like bill
– Buzzing wings
Woodpeckers – Chisel-like bills
– Stiff tail feathers
– Climbing on tree trunks
Sparrows – Streaked breasts
– Short conical bill
– Ground foragers
Warblers – Thin pointed bill
– Bright yellows and oranges
– Foraging mid-story