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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!

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