So, you left home a week ago and finally arrived at your destination. As you sit outside taking in the surroundings, a bird flitters by and lands in a nearby tree. If you have ever wondered, “Gee, what is that bird?” here are a few tips on bird identification.
The primary rule to remember is to take a long, slow look. Do NOT get in a hurry. Do NOT begin flipping through that newly purchased bird guidebook. Take your time to really get a good defining look at your mystery bird.
Slowly watch and look at the bird. Start with the head and work your way to the tail. Do not concern yourself with the minute details of field marks just yet. Make a few notes based on the following indicators as given by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (This is when you need binoculars.)
Size and shape
Size can be difficult to determine depending on the distance from the bird and its surroundings. Just think of the sizes of four birds that you already know (and that The Cornell Lab uses): sparrow, robin, crow, goose. Your mystery bird can fall within this range. Next, consider the shape of the head (round or crested), bill (blunt or long), body (plump or sleek), and tail (fanned or notched).
Some birds can be immediately identified by color, such as the bright red Northern Cardinal, glowing yellow American Goldfinch, royal blue Blue Jay. However, most require a bit more attention to distinguish. That flock of Red-winged Blackbirds from a distance could be European Starlings. A finch on your feeder may be a House Finch or Purple Finch, both having similar color patterns. Looking more closely, you determine the Red-winged Blackbird sports a dull black body as opposed to the greenish-black of the European Starling. You notice that the House Finch has more brown streaks against the paler red cover of the Purple Finch.
The Cornell Lab separates behavior into five categories, as follows”
- Posture refers to how the bird stands: horizontal or vertical, stiff or skittish.
- Movement identifies each species by its own rhythm of hopping, fluttering, or walking.
- Flight Pattern reflects in-air movement of flapping, gliding, straight-line, or swooping.
- Feeding Style shows the bird’s foraging habits. For example, Barn Swallows feed on insects while in flight, Mourning Doves scan the ground for insects and seeds, and the Northern Mockingbirds dart around with wings spread flushing out their prey.
- Flocking represents the sociability of the birds. We are not talking three or four birds. We speak of hundreds or thousands flying or fading together. Some may even nest together.
A bird’s habitat is, simply, that natural place where it lives and grows. Review your bird guide beforehand to know what species are prevalent in that area. First, begin with the type of habitat in which you are staying. You will not find a bird in a coniferous forest of Georgia hanging out on the rolling plains of Oklahoma or in the desert of Nevada. Then, see if your mystery bird fits into that habitat. Keep in mind that most birds migrate. The result is the bird that you identified in the summer will most likely show up elsewhere in the winter.
Finally, a little planning and a good bird guide can get you off to a productive birdwatching event. Enjoy watching and looking and noting the four keys identifying your mystery bird.
There are many books you can keep handy to identify birds. Find some here.