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Bird ID Skills

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Building Skills

With more than 800 species of birds in the U.S. and Canada, it’s easy for a beginning bird watcher to feel overwhelmed by possibilities. Field guides seem crammed with similar-looking birds arranged in seemingly haphazard order. We can help you figure out where to begin.

First off: where not to start. Many ID tips focus on very specific details of plumage called field marks - the eyering of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet; the double breast band of a Killdeer. While these tips are useful, they assume you’ve already narrowed down your search to just a few similar species.

So start by learning to quickly recognize what group a mystery bird belongs to. You do this in two ways: by becoming familiar with the general shape, color, and behavior of birds, and by keeping a running tally in your head of what kinds of birds are most likely to be seen in your location and time of year.

Of course you’ll need to look at field marks – a wingbar here, an eyering there – to clinch some IDs. But these four keys will quickly get you to the right group of species, so you’ll know exactly which field marks to look for.

Put the four keys into practice

Bird watchers can identify many species from just a quick look. They’re using the four keys to visual identification, rather than taking the bird apart into field marks.

  • Black-capped Chickadee

    Black-capped Chickadee

    Size & Shape

    Tiny bird with large head, plump body, narrow tail, and short bill

    Color Pattern

    Striking shiny black cap and throat against white cheeks. Buffy sides; wings and back soft gray

    Behavior

    Busy, acrobatic, and often in feeding flocks of several species

    Habitat

    Forests, woodlots, backyards, and shrubby areas; in the West, associated with deciduous trees

  • Blue Jay

    Blue Jay

    Size & Shape

    A large, bold songbird with a straight bill and triangular crest

    Color Pattern

    Bright, almost sparkling blue above, with a black necklace and gray-white underparts

    Behavior

    Inquisitively explores woodlands and yards, moves in long hops; piercing calls

    Habitat

    Forest edge, woodlands, urban and suburban parks and yards

  • Red-bellied Woodpecker

    Red-bellied Woodpecker

    Size & Shape

    Sleek, round-headed, without the blocky outlines of Hairy Woodpecker

    Color Pattern

    Pale overall, even the boldly black-and-white striped back, with flashing red cap and nape

    Behavior

    Hitches along branches and trunks of medium to large trees, picking at bark more often than drilling into it

    Habitat

    Eastern woodlands and forests

  • Chipping Sparrow

    Chipping Sparrow

    Size & Shape

    A small, compact, fairly flat-headed sparrow with a long, notched tail

    Color Pattern

    Crisp, frosty gray-white below, striking rufous cap with black line through eye

    Behavior

    Often in flocks; feeds on open ground, sings from high in trees, often evergreens

    Habitat

    Open woodlands, forests with grassy clearings, parks, roadsides, yards

  • House Wren

    House Wren

    Size & Shape

    Small, compact, flat-headed, with a long, curved bill and fairly long narrow tail

    Color Pattern

    Subdued brown with paler throat and underparts, darker-barred wings and tail

    Behavior

    Hops quickly through tangles and low branches; sings frequently

    Habitat

    Forest edges, thickets, overgrown parts of yards and parks

  • Western Scrub-Jay

    Western Scrub-Jay

    Size & Shape

    A lanky bird with long, floppy tail and a rounded head without crest

    Color Pattern

    Blue and gray above, with a pale underside broken up by a blue necklace

    Behavior

    Assertive, vocal, and inquisitive; in flight seems underpowered and slow

    Habitat

    Scrubby habitats of the West: oak woodlands and chaparral near the coast and pinyon-juniper woodlands of the interior

  • Killdeer

    Killdeer

    Size & Shape

    A large plover with large bill, large eye, and round head; long legs

    Color Pattern

    Golden brown above with two dark bands across the white breast

    Behavior

    Runs swiftly along ground or breaks into stiff-winged flight with shrill kill-deer call

    Habitat

    Open grassy and rocky areas, often far from water, including parking lots, lawns, and driveways

  • Cedar Waxwing

    Cedar Waxwing

    Size & Shape

    A sleek songbird with a swept-back crest, plump body and square-tipped tail

    Color Pattern

    Silky gray-brown, with yellow belly and red and yellow accents on wings and tail

    Behavior

    Often in large flocks, eating berries or catching insects over open water, giving high trilling call

    Habitat

    Woodlands, orchards, parks, and treed suburbs

Visit each of our tutorials and we’ll run through the tips you need to start identifying birds with speed and confidence.

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