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 4 keys into practice
Bird watchers can identify many species from just a quick look. They’re using the four keys to visual identification: Size & Shape, Color Pattern, Behavior, and Habitat. Practice with these common birds to see how the 4 keys work together:
You can also see the 4 keys in action in our free Inside Birding series of instructional videos.