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Building Skills: The 4 Keys to Bird Identification

To identify an unfamiliar bird, focus first on four keys to identification.
Blue Grosbeak by Blue Grosbeak by Todd Fellenbaum/Macaulay Library

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.

Black-capped Chickadee

black-capped chickadee
Photo by Kevin Bolton via Birdshare.

Size & Shape: Tiny bird with large head, plump body, narrow tail, and short bill

Color Pattern: 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

Cedar Waxwing

cedar waxwing
Photo by cdbtx via Birdshare.

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


Photo by Kevin Bolton via Birdshare.

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

Chipping Sparrow

chipping sparrow
Photo by Byard Miller via Birdshare.

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

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library