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What’s the secret to identifying birds?

What’s the secret to identifying birds?
Tuesday 18, 2016

It’s not an easy question to answer.

More than 700 kinds of birds live in North America and more than 10,000 worldwide, enough variety to keep anyone absolutely amazed for a lifetime.

But you probably know other people that are able to accurately identify just about every bird.

How do they do it? Do they know some "birding" secret that you don’t?

Actually, yes, they do!

And today I’m going to show you one of my favorite birding pursuit strategies of all time: the Eagle Eye Approach.

BIRD IDENTIFICATION: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE
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Bird watching is one of the fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation in the country. Each year millions of people discover for the first time the joys of birdwatching. It's easy to understand why. Birds are fun to watch.

Among the fondest and most memorable moments of childhood are the discoveries of songbirds nesting in the backyard. The distinctive, mud-lined nests of robins and their beautiful blue eggs captivate people of all ages. Likewise, the nesting activities of house wrens, cardinals, chickadees, and other common birds can stimulate a lifelong interest in nature.

The Birding eBook Manual provides just that with over 700 pages of in-depth descriptions of every North American bird. The Birding Manual takes you from being the casual backyard birdwatcher to becoming an avid birdwatcher.

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The Trademarks of Nature


Click here to Enlarge Image


Bird topography is the outer surface of the bird and how the parts fit together. Some birds can be identified by color alone, but most birds are not that easy. The most important aids are what we call field marks, which are, in effect, the "trademarks of nature."



Terms

On the right is a diagram outlining the most commonly used terms we use when describing the feathers and bare parts of a bird.

Commonly used terms and broad classification for identifying north american birds

  • Crown
  • Eye stripe
  • Earpatch (auriculars)
  • Nape
  • Mantle
  • Scapulars
  • Medial and lesser coverts
  • Greater coverts
  • Tertials
  • Secondaries
  • Primaries
  • Rump/upper tail coverts
  • Supercilium
  • Eye ring
  • Lores
  • Upper mandible/culmen
  • Lower mandible
  • Chin
  • Malar
  • Throat
  • Breast
  • Sides
  • Belly
  • Flanks
  • Vent
  • CHICKADEES, TITMICE, VERDIN, AND BUSHTIT
  • FINCHES
  • CARDINALS, GROSBEAKS, BUNTINGS, AND DICKCISSEL
  • ICTERIDS—BLACKBIRDS AND ORIOLES
  • CREEPERS AND WRENS
  • THRUSHES AND WRENTIT
  • MIMIDS—CATBIRDS, MOCKINGBIRDS, AND THRASHERS
  • STARLINGS AND MYNAS
  • WAGTAILS AND PIPITS
  • WAXWINGS AND PHAINOPEPLA
  • WOOD-WARBLERS
  • TANAGERS
  • SEEDEATERS, TOWHEES, SPARROWS, JUNCOS, AND LONGSPURS
  • DIPPER AND BULBUL
  • Waterfowl — Geese, Swans, And Ducks
  • GAME BIRDS — CHACHALACA, QUAIL, PHEASANT, AND GROUSE
  • LOONS
  • GREBES
  • ALBATROSSES
  • PETRELS AND SHEARWATERS
  • STORM-PETRELS
  • TROPICBIRDS
  • SULIDS (BOOBIES)
  • PELICANS
  • CORMORANTS
  • HERONS, EGRETS, AND IBIS
  • STORKS, VULTURES, AND FLAMINGOS
  • PETRELS AND SHEARWATERS
  • DIURNAL RAPTORS—KITES, HAWKS, EAGLES, AND FALCONS
  • RAILS, COOTS, LIMPKIN, AND CRANES
  • SHOREBIRDS—PLOVERS AND SANDPIPERS
  • SKUAS AND JAEGERS
  • GULLS
  • TERNS AND SKIMMER
  • ALCIDS—AUKS, MURRES, AND PUFFINS
  • PIGEONS AND DOVES
  • PARROTS AND PARAKEETS
  • CUCKOOS, ROADRUNNER, AND ANIS
  • OWLS
  • NIGHTHAWKS AND NIGHTJARS
  • SWIFTS
  • HUMMINGBIRDS
  • TROGONS
  • KINGFISHERS
  • WOODPECKERS
  • FLYCATCHERS
  • SHRIKES
  • VIREOS
  • JAYS, CROWS, AND RAVENS
  • LARKS
  • SWALLOWS
Most birds have particular field marks that help to distinguish them from all others, and the secret is to know which ones are important. Inexperienced birders commonly use field marks to jump-start an identification. Experienced birders use field marks to confirm it.
A bird’s habitat is one of the first clues to its identification

You can find birds everywhere, but you will not find the same birds everywhere. Each species has its own distribution, its own range. And each place has its own particular combination of bird species. One of the keys to identifying birds is knowing what to expect at a given place and time.

The range maps in this guide shown on the right are color-coded to show you where and when to expect each bird. Lighter colors show where the bird is scarce or especially hard to find.

At first glance this might seem like a lot of colors, but there are really only three to remember: red for summer, blue for winter, gray for migration.

Why Do Birds Migrate?

Migration can be understood to occur when it costs (which may be very high in terms of both energy and mortality risk) are lower than the benefits of using well-separated breeding and wintering grounds. These facts are consistent with the view that migrants fly north to breed in order to avail themeselves of seasonally abundant food supplies, to avoid the high density of nest predators and parasites found in the tropics, and to take advantage of longer days for extended foraging. While, some bird species must migrate south in the winter because conditions are too harsh to support them on their breeding grounds.

Range maps

habitat

How to Identify Birds
What is the Bird's Size?

Acquire the habit of comparing a new bird with some familiar "yardstick" -- a house sparrow, robin, pigion, etc. -- so that you can say to yourself, "Smaller than a robin, a little larger than a house sparrow."

What is Its Shape?

Is it plump like a starling (left) or slender like a cuckoo (right)?


What Shape Are Its Wings?

Are they rounded like a bobwhite's (left) or sharply pointed like a Barn Swallow's (right)?


What Shape Is Its Bill?

Is it small and fine like a warbler's (1), stout and short like a seed-cracking sparrow's (2), dagger-shaped like a tern's (3), or hook-tipped like a bird of prey's (4)?


What Shape Is Its Tail?

Is it deeply forked like a Barn Swallow's (1), square-tipped like a Cliff Swallow's (2), notched like a Tree Swallow's (3), rounded like a Blue Jay's (4), or pointed like a Mourning Dove's (5)?


How Does It Behave?

Does it cock its tail like a wren or hold it down like a flycatcher? Does it wag its tail? Does it sit erect on an open perch, dart after an insect, and return as a flycatcher does?


Does It Climb Trees?

If so, does it climb upward in spirals like a creeper (left), in jerks like a woodpecker (centre) using its tail as a brace, or go down headfirst like a nuthatch (right)?

climb
How Does It Fly?

Does it undulate (dip up and down) like a flicker (1)? Does it fly straight and fast like a dove (2)? Does it hover like a kingfisher (3)? Does it glide or soar?

fly
Does it Swim?

Does it sit low in the water like a loon (1) or high like a gallinule (2)? If a duck, does it dive like a scaup or a scoter (3) or dabble and upend like a Mallard (4)?

fly
Does it Wade?

It is large and long-legged like a heron or small like a sandpiper? If one of the latter, does it probe the mud or pick at things? Does it teeter or bob?

fly
What Are Its Field Marks?

Some birds can be identified by color alone, but most birds are not that easy. Note whether the breast is spotted as in a thrush(1), streaked as in a thrasher(2), or plain as in a cuckoo(3).



Tail Pattern

Does the tail have a "flash pattern" -- a white tip as in the Eastern King-bird(1), white patches in the outer corners as in the Eastern and Spotted towhees(2), or white sides as in the juncos(3)



Rump Patch

Does it have a light rump like a Cliff Swallow(1) or flicker(2)? Northern Harrier, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and several shorebirds also have distinctive rump patches.



Eye Stripes and Eye-ring

Does the bird have a stripe avoce, through, or below the eye, or a combination of these stripes? Does it have a striped crown? A ring around the eye, or "spectacles"? A "mustache" stripe? These details are important in many small songbirds.



Wing Bars

Do the wings have light wing bars or not? Their presence or adsence is important in recognizing many warblers, vireos, and flycatchers. Wing bars may be single or double, bold or obscure.



Wing Pattern

The basic wing pattern of ducks (show below), shorebirds, and other water birds is very important. Notice whether the wings have patches(1) or stripes(2), are solidly colored(3), or have contrasting black tips.



The more time you spend in the field becoming familiar with bird behavior, the more skilled you'll become at finding bird nests.

It is as exciting to keep a bird nest list as it is to keep a life list.

Remember, if you happen to find a nest during the breeding season, leave the site as undisturbed as possible. Back away, and do not touch the nest, eggs, or young birds.

Often raccoons, and several other mammals, grackles, and cowbirds are more than happy to have you "point out" a nest and will raid it if you disrupt the site or call attention to it.

Many people find young birds that have just left the nest and may appear to be alone. Usually they are not lost but are under the watchful eye of a parent bird and are best left in place rather than scooped up and taken to a foreign environment.

In the winter, nest hunting can be great fun and has little impact, as most nests will never be used again. They are easy to see once the foliage is gone, and it can be a challenge to attempt to identify the builder of the nest.

Bird Songs and Calls

Using sounds to identify birds can be just as useful as using visual clues.

In fact, in many situations, birds are much more readily identified by sound than by sight. The species accounts here include a brief entry on voice, with interpretations of these songs and calls, in an attempt to give birders some handle on the vocalizations they hear.

Authors of bird books have attempted, with varying success, to fit songs and calls into syllables, words and phrases. Musical notations, comparative descriptions, and even ingenious systems of symbols have also been employed to. To supplement this verbal interpretation, there are recording collections available for nearly every region of the world and for individual groups of birds.

The eagle eye approach to identifying birds encourages preparation in advance for particular species or groups which greatly enhances your ability to identify them. It involves doing a majority of birding by ear, and there is no substitute for actual sounds -- for getting out into the field and tracking down the songster and committing the song to memory.

However, an audio library is a wonderful resource to return home to when attempting to identify a bird heard in the field. Many such collections can now be taken into the field on digital audio devices.

Caution: When using recordings to attract hard-to-see species, limit the number of playbacks, and do not use them on threatened species or in heavily birded areas.

References
# Author Title
1 David Allen Sibley The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior
2 Kenn Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America
3 Paul J. Baicich, J. O. Harrison A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds Princeton Field Guides
4 Roger Tory Peterson Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America
5 Todd Telander Birds of Florida A Falcon Field Guide™
5 Daniel Edelstein warblerwatch.com