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Bird Identification - Birding Basics

Joe Kegley

Painted Bunting

Bird identification can be a frustrating business, especially for a novice. Many observations are in a backlit situation making a bird's plumage and coloration difficult to see. The same can be said for birds viewed within a dark forest canopy, the distinct field marks and colors are not always visible.

To make matters worse, some features that distinguish one species from another are very subtle and require optimum light with a short viewing distance.

One of the first steps a person can take is eliminate unlikely species. Unfortunately one needs to have a little background of birds local to their region. To eliminate one needs to know the location, habitat, and seasonal preference of particular species.

For instance, an extreme example would be a California Condor. I know that I am not going to see a California Condor in South Carolina. The location is all wrong.

Another example might be the Oystercatcher, I doubt I am going to find the Oystercatcher foraging in a pine savannah filled with wiregrass. The bird eats oysters, its habitat is coastal islands, beaches, estuaries, and mudflats. Likewise I doubt I would see a Red-cockaded Woodpecker walking a mudflat, its preferred habitat is the Longleaf pine savannah.

A knowledge of seasonal migrations can help eliminate species too. For instance it would be very unlikely for me to observe a Snow Goose or Tundra Swan in eastern North Carolina during July. Both species spend their summers on tundra in the most northern regions of North America. Though in January it would not be uncommon at all to come across either of the two in eastern North Carolina. While none of the above birds are hard to identify, the examples were given to demonstrate with a little background knowledge, one can eliminate species during the identification process.

Characteristics used for Bird Identification can be summarized into the following categories:

Size and Shape

The shape and size of a bird let's one categorize the subject into a family or genus grouping, or at the very least, eliminate those groups the bird does not belong to. Generally this is the first step taken in bird identification.

  • Size

    A common method used by birders to judge size is that of reference. Of course one is not going to get close enough to measure the subject with a ruler or tape measurer. But by using a reference of common backyard birds one may be able to minimize the range of family groupings the bird belongs to. Obviously sizes in a grouping vary and there is some overlap, but for the most part one can categorize groupings in the following manner.

    Here's an example assuming a Tufted Titmouse is 6 inches in length, a Northern Mockingbird is 9 - 11 inches in length, and an American Crow is 17 - 19 inches in length. Note that length is measured from tip of bill to tip of tail.

    • < = Tufted Titmouse

      This group would include hummingbirds, kinglets, gnatcatchers, chickadees, wood warblers, nuthatches, buntings, finches, wrens, swifts, some sparrows.

    • > =Tufted Titmouse and < = Northern Mockingbird

      This group includes flycatchers, vireos, swallows, thrushes, tanagers, grosbeaks, cardinals, orioles, meadowlarks, blackbirds, most woodpeckers, and some sparrows.

    • > = Northern Mockingbird and < = American Crow

      Member of this group might include grebes, the Least Bittern, a few ducks, a few raptors, the Ruffed Grouse, the Northern Bobwhite, some gulls, terns, most doves, cuckoos, some owls, jays, grackles, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Northern Flicker, and the the Belted Kingfisher.

    • > = American Crow

      The range of this group includes loons, the Wood Stork, ibis, egrets, herons, the American Bittern, cormorants, the Anhinga, pelicans, swans, geese, most ducks, cranes, most raptors, the Wild Turkey, some gulls, and some owls.

    The above is not a complete listing nor an exact science, but merely an example of how to use relative size during bird identification.

    Another way to look at it ...

    • Small - Titmouse size or smaller.
    • Medium - Northern Mockingbird to Mourning Dove size.
    • Large - American Crow size or larger.

  • Shape

    Shape also allows one to determine (or eliminate) the grouping a particular species might belong to. One should pay attention to the following features: overall body shape, bill, head, neck, legs, and tail.

    Overall body shape. Overall body shape takes form from individual features. One of the best examples are geese and ducks. Even non-birders recognize that shape and can distinguish the bird as not being a songbird, a raptor, or a long-legged wader, but in fact a goose or duck.

    Another example is that of the Great Blue Heron versus the Sandhill Crane. Both are tall, long necked, long legged birds. But their silhouettes (overall body shape) is quite different. In a normal standing position the Sandhill Crane's rear sticks out noticeably further horizontally from the legs than that of the Great Blue Heron. There are also differences in their shape during flight. The Great Blue Heron tucks its neck into an "s" shape while the Sandhill Crane's neck is fully extended.

    Bill shape. One of the more important features of a bird to note is the bill shape.

    • Short thick conical bill - good for cracking open seeds and includes finches, cardinals, buntings, and grosbeaks.
    • Short to medium thin bill - used for eating insects and includes warblers, flycatchers, kinglets, and swallows.
    • Short to medium slightly downward curved bill - usually for probing insects and includes cuckoos, wrens, and some thrashers.
    • Long upward curved thin bill - again used for probing and includes shorebirds (American Avocet, godwits).
    • Long downward curved thin bill - again used for probing and includes shorebirds (curlews, Whimbrel).
    • Long straight thin bill - again used for probing and includes shorebirds (snipes, dowitchers, Willet, sandpipers, Black-necked Stilt).
    • Flat bill - usually for filtering food from water, the group includes various ducks and the Roseate Spoonbill.
    • Hooked bill - used for tearing flesh and includes the raptors.
    • Chisel shaped bill - includes woodpeckers.

    Head and Neck Shape.

    • Crested Head - includes jays, waxwings, Northern Cardinal, Wood Duck, various mergansers, Crested Caracara, Royal Tern, Belted Kingfisher, Pileated Woodpecker, and the Tufted Titmouse.
    • Facial Disk - includes owls and the Northern Harrier.
    • Long neck - includes herons, bitterns, egrets, Anhinga, cranes, ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, swans, and some Geese.

    Legs and Tail Shape.

    • Long Legs - includes herons, bitterns, egrets, cranes, ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and the Wood Stork.
    • Long Tail - includes Northern Pintail, Long-tailed Duck, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
    • Forked or Scissored Tail - includes the Barn Swallow, Magnificent Frigatebird (sometimes), Swallow-tailed Kite, terns, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and the Purple Martin.
    • Pointed Tail - includes the Mourning Dove, Northern Pintail, and Long-tailed Duck.
    • Tail Cocked Upward - includes wrens, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and to a lesser degree the Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, and the Brown Thrasher.

Color and Patterns

To use color and patterns to accurately identify a species, one needs to know the general topography of a bird. The following photo points out some very general areas of a bird one should be familiar with.

Bird Topography

More specific features of bird topography include the following:

Worm-eating Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Great Egret
Black and White Warbler

You and your field guide will form a long lasting relationship involving the color and patterns category. One should become familiar with the above areas of a bird's topography. Make written/mental notes of color and/or patterns applicable to specific areas when observing an unfamiliar bird species. Refrain from immediately thumbing through your field guide when presented with an unfamiliar bird. You may have only seconds to observe these field marks and could miss some important observations when your eyes are turned to the book.

Pay particular attention to the head feathers. Note if the bird displays (and what color) any of the following:

  • lateral/median crown stripe
  • eye-ring (or broken eye-ring)
  • eye-line
  • eyebrow
  • ear patch
  • mustache
  • crown

Other areas to note color and/or patterns include:

  • throat (color)
  • breast (color, spots or streaks)
  • sides (color, spots or streaks)
  • wings (are wingbars or wing patches observed - about half the wood warbler have wingbars, about half don't)
  • rump (color - such as the easily visible white rump of the Northern Flicker or the Northern Harrier when in flight)
  • tail (spots or streaks - such as on the Mangrove Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, or Black-billed Cuckoo.)

One should note that plumage coloration can vary depending on breeding and non-breeding seasons. Typically the color of a bird's breeding plumage is much more vibrant compared to non-breeding plumage, making identification easier. Also realize that plumages for juvenile and immature birds can be different from adults of the same species.


Most songbird species (perching birds - passerines) can be identified with a high degree of confidence by their vocal characterizations. Realize that identifying birds by sound requires experience and can be extremely frustrating for the novice birder.

Bird vocalizations are generally broken down into two categories: songs and calls.

Songs are usually the most distinctive vocalizations and are more melodic with the phrases lasting longer than calls. Bird songs are used to establish and maintain territories. In addition, they are used for various breeding and pair bonding rituals.

Calls are used for various communication purposes, such as keeping members of a flock in contact, flight calls, feeding, or for alarming. Generally calls are short repeated chips, chirps, and trills.

Bird songs (and calls) can be learned using the following methods:

  • Field Experience
  • Studying and listening to bird song recordings
  • Applying phonetic representations (such as those in the field guides)
  • Applying mnemonics
  • Applying adjectives and adverbs to describe the quality of the bird vocalization

More information on learning bird vocalizations will be found in the Learning Bird Vocalizations page on this site.

Realize it is not just the melody of the song that can be used to identify a bird. Other aspects including the rhythm, cadence, pitch, and quality of the song, offer clues to the species identity.


A few bird species appear to be ubiquitous throughout the Southeast. Such is the case with the Northern Cardinal, it's hard to go anywhere and not see or hear one. But more often than not most species prefer a specific type of habitat.

As noted in the introduction, knowing the habitat helps eliminate species of birds that should not be associated with a particular environment. A good field guide will list the preferred habitat for each individual species.

Examples of habitat found within the southeastern United States include:

  • Coniferous Forests
  • Deciduous/Mixed Forests
  • Pine Savannahs
  • Palmetto and Oak Scrub
  • Open Grasslands and Fields
  • Pastures and Agricultural areas
  • Early and mid-succession fields (thickets)
  • Urban areas
  • Freshwater Marshes
  • Saltwater Marshes
  • Swamps
  • Rivers and Streams
  • Lakes and Ponds
  • Beaches and Dunes
  • Bays, Estuaries, and Mudflats
  • Open Ocean

By no means is the above list all inclusive, but it does show typical examples of habitat a particular species may prefer. As one becomes familiar with their field guide and various species of birds, grouping species by habitat will become easier.


Having a fundamental knowledge of bird behavior can be beneficial to identifying birds, or at the very least narrow down your subject to a specific group of birds.

Examples of behavior to note include:

  • Foraging Behavior. Does the bird search for food on the ground, in a thicket, up high in the trees, on a tree truck, in or near the water, or in the air? Woodpeckers and nuthatches forage on tree trunks. Chimney Swifts and flycatchers catch insects on the fly. Finches, the American Robin, mockingbirds, and thrashers usually search the ground for food. Great Egrets, the Great Blue Heron, and the Green Heron, wait perfectly still for fish to come into range, while Snowy and Reddish Egrets chase their watery prey.
  • Flight Behavior. Woodpeckers and finches fly with an undulating flight pattern. Vultures, Wood Storks, and some hawks, can soar with very minimal wing activity. Does the species like to fly in groups like ducks and geese?
  • How does the bird hold its tail? Is it cocked up? Does it pulse up and down? Wrens hold their tail in a cocked position. Louisiana Waterthrushes will bounce their tails up and down. Many flycatchers constantly dip their tail. Other birds may move their tails up and down in a slow pulsing rhythm.
  • Perching. Where does the bird prefer to perch? Does it perch on tree trunks, fences, power lines, tree branches, or on the top of tall solitary dead trees?
  • Nesting activity and location. Does the bird nest in groups such as a rookery like herons, egrets, and Wood Storks? Is the nest built on the ground or in a tree? Is the nest attached to a structure or building like that of a Chimney Swift or Cliff Swallow? What is the nest built of ... twigs, branches, mud, trash? Does the bird use existing holes in trees for its nest? Does it create a new hole in a tree for a nest? Does the bird lay its eggs on the beach?
  • Assembly Behavior. Does the species assemble in large groups like European Starlings, waxwings, geese, and some ducks?
  • Vocal Behavior. When does it sing, only in the morning and evening, throughout the day, or only at night?

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