Wild birding: Tips for identifying wild birds

Few things are more relaxing than taking an early morning walk along a wooded road. Learning to identify the birds you see can make it fun and interesting, too.

Identifying Wild Birds

Few things are more relaxing than taking an early morning walk along a wooded road, listening to the birdsong around you. If you are like many of us, you may enjoy looking for different birds to add to your “life list,” that mysterious, never-ending document that many “birders” maintain. As you are daydreaming, you notice a sudden flash of red come bursting out of the trees next to you. The bird flies across your path and settles high in a tree in the distance. Safely out of your reach, it sits upright on a branch and begins to sing.

What kind of bird was it? All you can see clearly at this point is the color, a bright solid red. Even without a pair of binoculars, you might be able to identify it.

Wild birding: Tips for identifying wild birds

When you’re trying to identify a bird in the wild, it’s much easier to do when you have a lot of information about it. But even if your sighting lasts for only a couple of seconds, it’s still possible to figure out what kind of bird you saw. All you need are these pieces of information.

  • Where it was seen
  • Behavior
  • Color
  • Song
  • Physical characteristics

Where it was seen

This information is fairly simple to arrive at. What part of the country were you in when you saw the bird? If you were in the Northeast, your bird species expectations would be very different than if you lived in the Southwest.

In addition to the region of the country that you saw the bird in, it is important to note your surroundings. Were you walking through woods? Brush? A field? By the water? Where was the bird when you first saw it? Where did it move to? These pieces of information can give you clues to what bird you saw.

For the purpose of this example, let us say that you were in the Southeast region of the United States. We already know that you were on a wooded road and that the bird flew from tree to tree. This information gives you several candidates for your bird: the northern cardinal, the robin, the summer tanager, and the scarlet tanager. Although this list is far shorter than the 800 or so species that currently occupy North America, you still have a significant number of birds to choose from. How do you narrow them down further?


Even if you’ve only observed your bird for a matter of seconds, you’ve still witnessed some of its behavior. What did the flight look like and how long did it last? If you could see your bird land, what kind of posture did it take? Did it wait till you were almost passing by to fly away, or were you at some distance?

In our example, your bird flew quickly and directly between two trees. It started low, landed high, and began to sing when it landed. That gives you a few more clues to its identity.

First, we can probably eliminate the cardinal. The cardinal has typically has a short, darting flight, which usually is used to travel between the ground and a bush or tree, or from tree to tree. Cardinals are also very nervous birds; in most cases, as soon as it detected motion approaching it, your bird would have flown away. Eliminating the cardinal still leaves several birds. The robin has a distinctive wing stroke, but the flight may not have lasted long enough to identify it. Both kinds of tanagers have what is described as “swift, even flight.” In addition, both of these birds sit erect to sing. So far, then, it seems as if your bird is probably going to be a variety of tanager. How can you verify this assumption?


Even without binoculars, it’s not always hard to detect variations in color. Color is a very useful field marking, because it allows us to make broad distinctions between birds, quickly. Even from a distance, it is possible to determine if a bird is yellow, or blue, or red, or green, or even multicolored. It’s not too hard to distinguish between the bright blue of a bluebird and the gray-blue of the blue jay, for example. In this example, remember, your bird is a bright red. The brightness of its color eliminates the robin. A robin’s breast is a rather brick red. The two tanagers remain, then, because their coloration fits the description.


The bird’s song is also useful in long distance identification. Even a casual birdwatcher should become familiar with the sounds their most common local birds make. If you live in the Southeast, then you are probably familiar with the songs of the cardinal and the robin. This bird, in fact, sounds a little like a robin. Even if you’re not familiar with that song coming from that bird, make not of it. If you look it up later in a field guide or online, you’ll find that the bird that you saw could be no other than the scarlet tanager.

Physical Characteristics

If you have binoculars with you, identifying birds becomes that much easier. The matter of identification becomes taking in as much information as you can in the time allotted to you. Even if you have just a few seconds to take them in, you should be able to make note of certain physical characteristics.

* Head *

Always start bird identification at the head. A bird’s head provides a wealth of information that will usually provide positive identification of the species. Make note of the shape and size of the head. In most cases, the presence or absence of a crest is apparent at a glance. Head markings such as eye lines, rings, or crescents and cheek patches are valuable aids in identifying most species. Keeping a blank pad and pencil with you when you go for walks to sketch the basic head shape and characteristics will help you remember those identifying marks.

* Wings *

Almost as important about how birds’ wings are shaped is how they move. Birds with long, thin wings usually soar when they fly. Birds such as the swift and various types of gulls have this kind of wing shape. Vultures also soar, but are distinguished by the “finger” feathers at the tips and the silvery patch underneath the wing. Memorizing a few distinctive wing shapes can make the process of elimination easier.

In most species, the wings provide cues to their identity through markings and color. For this reason, most birders pay particular attention to a bird’s wings when it is at rest to observe any bars or colors that might be apparent in the markings. While waiting to look at the wings when the bird is at rest means that the color and markings of the wings are apparent, waiting also obscures their shape and movement. In our example above, all of the birds have wings that will give a birder a clue in identification. The robin has a grayish brown back and wings, which move in a unique stroking motion in flight and the cardinal’s red wings have a slightly grayish cast. Even the tanagers differ from one another: the summer tanager has wings that are slightly darker than its body, while the scarlet tanager has black wings. When singing, the summer tanager’s wings “drop” below its body line.

* Body, Size, and Tail *

Even if you can’t see the bird’s color, pay attention to its silhouette. Make note of the bird’s size, then its shape, and, finally, the way it holds its tail. A mourning dove and an American kestrel are not that different in size or perching habits, for example. The kestrel has a broader body than the dove, however, and it bobs its tail when it perches, sometimes holding its tail at a slight angle below the line of its rump.

In our example, the shape of a bird’s body is a giveaway in bird identification. Even if the songs are similar, the racy lines of the larger robin are instantly distinguishable from the smaller, plumper tanager.

* Markings *

Most of a bird’s markings are usually on their head and wings, but that doesn’t mean that they lack markings elsewhere. The dark smudge on its breast, for example, can identify the song sparrow, while the redstart’s red and black tail can make its identity almost instantly apparent. Most East Coast hummingbird species are similar, differentiated mostly by the males’ brightly colored gorgets, while the starling is easily distinguished from the similar brown-headed cowbird by its distinctive speckled plumage. Some species, such as the crow are identifiable by their lack of markings.

Wild bird identification can’t be taught in a single article. Many books exist on the subject and today’s many field guides can help the amateur interested in learning. If you are serious about learning how to identify wild birds, you should bring a pad and pencil with you on every walk, along with a pair of binoculars, to make note of the birds that you see. Record their activities, their color, and their markings. Look your birds up as soon as you are able, before you forget the details you have observed. There are few things more relaxing than a walk along a wooded road. Using the time to learn more about the wildlife around you can make it fun and educational as well.

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