Guest Post: 6 Tips on Identifying Birds for Beginners

I first became acquainted with Mark Danehaur when he contacted me about reviewing his  book, Jake’s Nature Guide: Rocky Mountains, is a small guidebook to the Rocky Mountains that is aimed at parents with young children or children themselves.  His book is small enough to fit in a pocket, making it easy to take on outings (4”x6”); covers all aspects of the natural world; and it includes colorful drawings of Jake the dog, who shares fun nature facts throughout the book. Mark also hosts a nature blog; a sample post is below.

Identifying birds can be a fun thing to do when you are out exploring.  Although, at first it may seem quite challenging to identify the birds if you do not know what you are doing.  Fortunately, by knowing a few tips, identifying birds becomes much easier.

Size of Bird

How big is the bird?  This can be difficult to guess, especially if the bird is far away or is sitting on a branch of a tree way up high.  A good way to guess is to think of something that you know the size of and try to compare the size of the bird with that.  For example, you may know how big a soccer ball is.  Does the bird look bigger, smaller, or about the same size as the soccer ball.  This will just give you a general idea if the bird is small, medium, or large.

Another way to estimate the size of the bird is to compare it to the size of birds you are familiar with.  For example, a sparrow is a small bird, a pigeon is a medium sized bird, and a hawk is a large bird.  Does the bird you see look similar in size to one of those?

Shape of Bird

What does the overall shape of the bird look like?  Is it short and fat or is it tall and thin with long legs?  Does it have a short tail or a long tail?  Does it have feathers standing up on the top of it’s head or not?   This does not need to be done in detail, but you can just glance at the bird and note the overall appearance.  This shape can help you identify what kind of bird it is.

Shape and length of bill – this may be hard to see, but try to look closely at the bill of the bird.  The shape of the bird’s bill will actually tell you a lot about the bird.  It will give you an idea as to what that kind of bird eats and therefore may help you figure out where it lives.

Behavior of Bird

What is the bird doing?  Is it flying around the tops of the trees or is it going up and down the trunk of a tree looking for food?  Also, notice if the bird is part of a flock or is alone.  Does it stay up on trees or shrubs or does it get down on the ground?  If it is on the ground how does it move around – by walking or hopping?

Color of Bird

This may seem simple and easy to do, but can be harder than you think.  You may not have a lot of time to look before the bird flies away, so do your best to look and remember.  Focus on the head, neck, back, breast, and the tail feathers when it flies.

If you have some time, then look at the overall colors of the bird.  Is the entire bird one color or is the back one color and the breast a different color?  Is the head of the bird one color or are there stripes running down the head?  Are there any markings on the neck of the bird?  What about the wings?

Keep in mind that certain kinds of birds may be different colors at different times of year.  Also, some young birds may be a different color than the adults or females and males may differ in their coloring.    Just look at the coloring of the bird you see and look that up in your guide book.

Where are you?  Look around you to see what kind of habitat you are and what kind of habitat you see the bird in.  Are you near a lake?  In a forest?  On a mountain slope?  Walking across a mountain meadow near forest?

To use binoculars or not for identifying birds?

Binoculars are not necessary to see and identify birds.  But, if you have a pair bring them along because you will be able to get a closer look at birds and it will help you to identify more birds than you would be able to without them.

Being good at identifying birds will give you another way of understanding the natural world around you.  If you are very interested, you can always learn more about common birds birds such that you can go beyond identifying them and even begin to understand their behavior.

Mark Danenhauer has been a stay-at-home Dad for the past seven years.  Mark, his wife, and two kids have lived in Salt Lake City for ten years. Jake’s Nature Blog developed from his love of nature. While exploring and teaching his children about the natural world, Mark learned a lot about getting children outdoors. His blog is my attempt to help other parents enjoy nature with their children too.


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