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Help develop a Bird ID tool!


Question of the Week

Q. There's a bird in my yard I've never seen before. How can I find out what it is?

A. There are four key features for visual identification. While looking at an unfamiliar bird, observe:

  • Size and shape
  • Color pattern
  • Behavior
  • Habitat

Birders try to take notes about these four features, and some sketch or photograph the bird as well to help make an ID.

How does this tell us what the bird is? By looking at the bird's shape, we can get an idea of what family it belongs to. Might it be a duck? A woodpecker? How is the bill shaped? Long or short, stout or thin, straight or curved?

If another bird is nearby, we look at relative sizes. Is our bird sparrow-sized? Smaller than a robin? Larger than a crow? And we look at the shape and size of various features, compared to other features on the bird itself. Are the wings long? Do they extend to the tip of the tail? Is the beak long compared to the bird's head size?

Then we look at overall colors and special patterns. Does it have wingbars? An eye-line? Streaking on the breast or back?

We're also paying attention to the bird's behavior. Does it walk or hop on the ground? Flit out from a tree, grab a bug and flit back? Is it visiting a feeder? Is it alone or feeding with other birds? If it vocalized, what did it sound like?

Habitat is also important. Is the bird in deep forest, expansive prairie, open woods, a marsh or swamp? Your location will also be an important clue to help rule out bird species not found in your region during that time of year.

Now look in a field guide and try to find your bird. This can seem exceptionally frustrating when you're just starting out, and often your bird will disappear before you've even come to the right page. That's where taking notes can help.

You can also try to identify your mystery bird by using our Merlin Bird ID app. The Merlin app asks a series of questions, like where you are located, and the colors of the bird, and then gives you a list of possible birds you may be seeing.

If you have some guesses about your bird's identity but still aren't sure, take a look at the All About Birds Online Bird Guide for additional clues about appearance, behavior, and sound.

Even if you don't find this bird, don't get discouraged. Little by little, you'll learn various species, and every time you search through your book you'll grow a little more familiar with where the different species are grouped, making you quicker to find the next one.

Past Questions of the Week

Q. I’m getting a little tired of winter—What are some of the first spring birds to arrive, and when will they get here?

Q. Why do birds have such elaborate and varied courtship rituals?

Q. How can Bald Eagles survive in northern areas after all the lakes have frozen?

Q. How long do wintering Snowy Owls stay with us before they return to their breeding grounds?

Q. Are cardinals brighter in winter?

Q. Will birds use nest boxes to roost in for warmth during the winter?

Q. There's a hummingbird at my feeder in the dead of winter. Will he be okay?

Q. Is it unusual to see American Robins in the middle of winter?

Q. How do birds survive in very cold temperatures?

Q. Why don't birds get cold feet?

Q. Do birds store food for the winter?

Q. What can you tell us about the habitat associations of partridges and in particular whether pear trees are ever involved?

Q. A hawk has started hunting the feeder birds in my yard. What can I do?

Q. How much do birds eat each day?

Q. Where did the domestic turkey come from?

Q. I thought geese migrated south in the winter and north in the summer. Why did I just see a flock of Canada Geese flying in the "wrong" direction?

Q. Why do migratory birds crash into buildings at night and how can people prevent it from happening?

Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?

Q. How do birds prepare for long migrations?

Q. Should I stop feeding birds in fall so they can start their migration?

Q. What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?

Q. After birds leave a nest, can I clean out the nest for future use?

Q. How can I keep birds from hitting my windows?

Q. Why do woodpeckers like to hammer on houses?

Q. I’m seeing fewer birds in my yard. Is something affecting their populations?

Q. I found a baby bird. What should I do?

Q. I found a nest near my house and want to observe it but I am worried about disturbing it. Can you give me any advice?

Q. Sometimes I see little birds going after a big bird. Why do they do this?

Q. My feeders are being overrun with pigeons and blackbirds who eat all the food and keep the smaller birds away. What can I do?

Q. How can I share my bird photos with the Lab?

Q. How do I keep the squirrels in my yard away from my feeders and bird seed?

Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?

Q. Should I stop feeding hummingbirds in the fall so that they will migrate?

Q. After birds leave a nest, can I clean out the nest for future use?

Q. I live in a high-rise apartment with a tiny balcony. Is there any way I can attract birds all the way up on the 17th floor?

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