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How to Identify Birds?

Depending on your bird watching location, there may be thousands of wild bird species native to your region. Learning how to identify them all can be an overwhelming challenge. Of course, there is no need to commit all of this information to memory. 

Bird identification manuals will provide all the details you need. A good bird magazine can also be helpful, especially if it's local. What you will need to learn is what features are important for identification. When you are bird watching, you might only get a fleeting glimpse of a particular bird, and you need to make the most of that moment.

Bird Identification Guide


Size and Shape

Shape is a good feature for quickly identifying a particular class of birds, though not usually helpful for any specific species. Within any one group, most birds will look the same with regards to shape. An owl looks much different from a woodpecker, and a duck is built differently from a humming bird. 

Identify Birds By Color

The color of a bird is the easiest mode of identification. Some birds have very subtle differences in markings from one species to another, and some birds are impossible not to recognize due to their one-of-a-kind plumage. 

Bird species such as the cardinal, goldfinch, blue jay, or rose-breasted grosbeak are among the first to be identified by novice bird watchers because they are bright and so easy to pick out at a feeder or in the trees. Shades of black, brown, gray or white are much harder to learn. Stripes, bars or spots are also good things to look for.


How a bird moves, flies or behaves can provide a number of good clues to its identity. Vultures and ospreys will soar high in the sky, with only the barest number of wing flaps. The tiny nuthatch is easily found in the woods by its unique head-down posture as it hops along a tree trunk. Even the exotic flamingo is distinctive in how it stands on one leg and keeps its head underwater. Though you won't likely see flamingos in your local bird bath, even if it's a heated bird bath.


Where you see a particular bird can be as important for identification as what you see. All species of birds have a preferred habitat and will usually only been seen in those areas. You will never spot a cardinal floating on the surface of a lake, nor will you see a pelican at your bird feeder. Knowing the sorts of birds you will find in a particular area can help you make quicker decisions when you see a bird you don't recognize.

Identify Birds by Sound

Not all clues are visual. Keep your ears open when you are bird watching. To an untrained ear, all bird calls may sound alike. But each song is unique to a species and can help you locate birds from a distance. Don't forget, most birds have more than one song in their repertoire.

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