can identify birds by songs and call notes, you must get at least
a glimpse of most birds to know what they are. Most novice
birders need more than a glimpse. So, what are you looking
Birds are often
seen first as they are flying. Flight behavior is a good
clue to the identity of many birds. If nothing else, you
can eliminate what the bird isn't, thereby narrowing it down.
A straight flight is indicative of a great number of birds including
Common Grackles, American Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds, American
Robins and Blue Jays. Grackles and blackbirds tend to fly
in flocks especially in the winter. Crows are pretty easy,
unless their wing tips open and curve up a little like a Pileated
Woodpecker. Or its wings appear curved downward with a stiff
beat like a Green Heron. Robins tend to flap a little irregularly.
Blue Jays like to end a flight by raising their wings only up
to their body and back down in a shortened stroke.
or undulating flight is more typical of Carolina Chickadees,
Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches. Similar sized
warblers don't bounce very much and just before they land on
a branch they dart either to the right or left at the last second.
Thrushes may do the same, but often have to settle their wings
and tail immediately after landing as if readjusting them.
prefer to flap a few times and then hold their wings closed,
alternating this dipping pattern as they fly along.
Rumor has it that the timing of the dip is important if they
are to land feet first on a tree trunk.
as do vultures. But hawks fly flat and both Turkey and
Black Vultures have more of a dihedral or "V" shape
to their wing profile. If you watch closely, the Black
Vulture flies a little flatter than the Turkey.
The necks of
herons, egrets and bitterns are retracted as they fly, but ibises,
cranes, Canada Geese and Wood Storks have outstretched necks.
watching even the most common birds flying will imprint these
flight patterns in your mind so that you can identify birds at
great distances. Your friends will be quite impressed that
you can call out a bird as you drive 70 mph and, at the same
time, keep the car on the road.
Colors of birds
are one of the first and easiest characteristics we teach to
little children. Most familiar birds are easy to recognize
because of their color; red for Northern Cardinals, blue
for Blue Jays and bluebirds, black for crows, yellow/green for
warblers, gray/green for flycatchers, white for egrets, and so
are similar in size and color, however. Special markings,
called field marks, may be the only way to discern between two
look-alike species. Field marks include crown stripes,
eye lines, eye bars, eye rings, cheek patches, lores above the
nostrils, throat streaking, breast spots, tail spots, wing bars,
crissum color, and nape colors. By studying a good field
guide's topographic drawing of a bird (usually at the beginning
of the book), you can learn what these marks are called.
By studying the illustrations or photos in the field guide, you
learn which field marks are important.
The color of
a bird can be difficult to ascertain if it is flying. The
sun and sky as a background do little for color saturation.
Watch the bird until it flies in front of the tree canopy or
just before it lands in leaves. Green leaves make a better
background than the sky. However, when watching soaring
birds, it is best to get the blue sky behind them rather than
a white cloud.
Next to color,
a bird's size and shape is most useful. Large taxonomic
groups of birds called orders are easily learned because they
usually contain birds of similar size and shape. Because
of this, the differences between orders of birds are very apparent.
Even small children can tell orders of birds apart; i.e., hawks,
ducks, shorebirds, hummingbirds, grouse, woodpeckers, songbirds.
birds are divided into families. The differences in families
within an order are more subtle; shapes of wings and tail and
size of beak. While both are in the order Falconiformes,
the differences in wing shape and tail length place a Cooper's
Hawk in the accipiter family and a Red-tailed Hawk in the buteo
family. Postures, behaviors and internal structures that
you cannot see are also used to place birds in different families.
are often the most frustrating to learn. But upon close
examination they begin to look as different as faces of well-known
friends. Looking through your field guide, you will see
that many songbirds have distinctive beak and body sizes and
shapes. Warblers, for example, are sleek small birds with
thin beaks, while sparrows are stockier bodied and have thicker
cone-shaped beaks. The Mimidae family of Northern Mockingbirds,
Gray Catbirds and thrashers are long in body, beak and tail.
Chickadees are small, round and tiny beaked. Thrushes are
larger, plump, big headed and large eyed birds. Tanagers
and orioles are medium sized with long straight beaks, but grosbeaks
are chunkier and very thick beaked.
also important. Northern Cardinals, titmice, Cedar Waxwings,
Blue Jays, and some flycatchers all have crests. Pileated
Woodpeckers, Hooded Mergansers, kingfishers, herons and egrets
have crests of feather on top of their heads.
study the size and shape of a bird, you will need to include
the beak. A long thin straight beak will make a bird look
longer and thinner, like thrashers. A cone shaped beak
shortens the face, making the bird appear more round-headed,
like sparrows and grosbeaks. Curved beaks are typical of
Brown Creepers, Northern Mockingbirds, thrashers, and wrens.
They are also found in cuckoos and many shorebirds such as godwits,
curlews, and whimbrels. Nearly anyone can recognize a duck
by its flat beak. Anyone who has been bitten by a parakeet
or parrot can identify hooked beaks, also found in birds of prey.
At the other
end, a bird's tail can be useful especially if it is flying.
Long thin graduated tails are seen in cuckoos and Mourning Doves.
Birds that are black with short tails are European Starlings;
those with medium sized tails are either Red-winged, Brewer's
or Rusty Blackbirds. Very long tailed black birds are grackles.
Short tailed songbirds are nuthatches. Swallows with their
forked tails are distinguished from swifts that have hardly any
tail. The ultimate examples of forked or notched tails
are Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, terns, Barn Swallows and Swallow-tailed
Kites. Among the birds of prey, the short fan-shaped tails
of buteo hawks such as Broad-winged and Red-tailed, help tell
them from accipiters and falcons that have longer thinner tails.
behavior of a bird takes considerably more time than just a glimpse
of its shape and color. But observing bird behaviors can
be tremendously rewarding. On dark days or in poor lighting
when color, field marks, beak and tail shapes and sizes are not
clearly seen, the way a bird walks, perches, climbs a tree or
moves its tail can identify it at least to its family.
American Robins hop on the ground while European Starlings and
grackles strut. Phoebes flip their tails while perched.
Spotted Sandpipers pump their tails but Solitary Sandpipers teeter
their entire body. Nuthatches crawl on tree trunks in all
directions, but Brown Creepers only move in a spiraled up.
A Hermit Thrush has helium in its tail; it rises continually.
A merganser dives under water; a Mallard doesn't. These
are subtle behaviors but once noticed, can be useful even without
using your binoculars.
If all this
seems overwhelming, don't despair. Given enough desire
and time all of these clues become second nature. Each
characteristic will be processed quickly by your brain and your
fingers will glide smoothly through your field guide. Never
again will you call someone for help and simply say that the
bird was big and brown. Train your eyes to see colors,
field marks, beak and tail shapes, and characteristic behaviors.
Remember to watch the bird for as long as possible until you
have memorized everything about it or until it has flown away.
Then turn to your favorite field guide and match one or two of
the field marks that you noticed on the bird.
Ornithologist, President Birding Adventures, Inc.