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Identifying Birds in Your Area

2016 September 26

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Have you ever been walking around outside and heard a bird call that sounded familiar, but just as you turn your head to locate the source you only catch a glimpse of the bird as it flutters away, leaving you with only a vague sense of its shape, color, or even size? Or maybe you were able to say with certainty that it was pretty finch-like and you’d bet that it was either a House Finch or House Sparrow, but you can’t remember the essential differences between the two species?

With our Tricky Bird Identification Tips that help you distinguish those of our focal species that look alike or are similar to other birds, you should have a good starting point for training your eye to certain characteristics to look for while making your bird observations and even when simply walking around in your neighborhood or near where you work. But we know that this “quick-and-dirty” set of pointers might not be the type of information everyone needs or can use, so we also recommend the Lab of Ornithology’s Birding Basics guide, which is briefly outlined below.


    • Size & Shape: By noticing these two features in a bird, you’ve already collected very useful information on the type of bird you saw — for example, in the first photo above, you can notice the thickness and length of the beak and the relative size of the head to the body. The bird on the left has a straight and sharply pointed bill, while that on the right has a shorter and more conical bill; both have similar head sizes but the left-hand bird’s body is definitely larger. Is that enough to tell you what these birds are though? Probably not, so it’d be best if you can look for other features as well, like:
    • Color Pattern: Here’s a small hint – in the case of the two birds above, you’re looking for differences in light and dark, glossy (shiny) and matte (not shiny), and bold and plain ranges of color. If you can get a general sense of the type of color your mystery bird has, that’ll narrow down the list of potential species it could be by quite a bit!
    • Behavior: This is something that you might think won’t really help you if the only sight you caught of the bird was when it was flying away at top speed from you. But don’t give up right away — think about the whirring or whinnying sound a Mourning Dove’s wings make as it takes off, the alarm call that a Blue Jay might give as you startle it, or the dipping bounces in flight of woodpeckers and finches.


  • Habitat: This element of bird identification is one that can often be forgotten, but which can be quite helpful. If you’re seeing small brown birds hop around under bushes and benches near your bus-stop in the city, the probability that they’re House Finches or House Sparrows is extremely high. If you’re near water and you get a brief glance of a prehistoric-looking creature with a fairly large wingspan flapping overhead, chances are it’s a Great Blue Heron. Make sure to think about migration seasons and known ranges for certain birds that you’re uncertain about, as it will limit the list of potential species your mystery bird could be.


Hopefully these handy guidelines will bolster your instinctive bird identification skills and help you make split-second judgments on the general type of bird you’ve seen and make educated decisions on how to advance from that basic framework (by the way, the birds in the first picture are an American Robin and Brown-headed Cowbird from our Silhouette Poster by Susan Spear, in case you were wondering, and you can click on the two other bird drawings to find out about them). Good luck out there!

Workshop for Community Advocates and Grassroots Leaders on October 18-19

2016 June 2
by Karen Purcell


We are offering full scholarships for community advocates and grassroots leaders working in low-income communities.

Thanks to support from Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Thomas Cade Funds, we will be offering a two-day citizen science/Celebrate Urban Birds workshop here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This workshop is for community advocates and grassroots leaders who want to learn about citizen science, engaging communities in conservation through the arts, birdwatching, and greening programs at the Cornell Lab. Leaders must be working in low-income communities and should be interested in leading community programming in citizen science and birds.

Full scholarships cover travel, lodging, meals, and cost of the  workshop.

Scholarship application in English: APPLY HERE

Postulación en Español: POSTULA AQUÍ

Applications must be received by August 26.

Questions? Email

Texas Parks and Wildlife goes birding with local schools!

2016 February 29
by Laura Pineda-Bermudez
Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department put on a wonderful program that reached out to two schools in the El Paso area. A total of 77 participants from Americas High school and their feeder school, Vista Del Sol were involved in the very first “Celebrate Urban Birds!” event. The students arrived to Franklin Mountains State Park and spent the morning learning how to use the binoculars to identify birds, hiking, identifying bird calls, learning bird anatomy, and discussing the importance of citizen science!

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Each high schooler was paired with a younger “buddy” for the day from the elementary school and served as a mentor. The high schoolers guided their buddies through a fun, hands-on activity that allowed the students to get creative back at the high school. They each received a planter to decorate and seeds to plant that would serve as food sources for birds and butterflies. The idea behind the activity was to teach about the importance of creating “green spaces” to provide habitats for birds and other wildlife in urban environments. The busy day ended with data collection as part of a citizen science activity, where students tallied the number of birds observed within a given area during a set time period.

Both the mentors and their buddies went home happy at the end of the day! One of the teachers, Neysa Hardin commented on the success of the event:

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

“Thank you to Cesar, Adrianna, and John at Franklin Mountains State Park. The students had an incredible day! My high school students said that this was one of their best experiences ever. Not only did they learn about our local urban birds, but they also enjoyed being mentors for the day! The elementary students told their librarian that they can’t wait to visit the park again with their high school buddies. We look forward to partnering up again! Thank you a million times for this unique experience.”

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

Courtesy of Adrianna Weickhardt

This tremendous event has had a great impact on both the participants and the surrounding community. Through this event, the students have been able to gain awareness and appreciation for birds and nature in their very own backyard. The high school students stepped up to their roles as mentors and really made an effort to be engaged and supportive throughout the activities. The relationships strengthened between the schools and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have also been incredible! By holding activities in both the high school and state park, a bridge between the “wild” and the “urban” was formed, making connections between both habitats.

A huge thank you to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for putting on a magnificent event!!