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bird identification tips for beginners
 
Bird watchers
Like all detectives you will need some tools to help you solve the puzzle. To begin your work you should have a pair of binoculars, a field guide and a tape recorder to listen to bird songs. Study your field guide and listen to tapes before you go outside. What you learn about size, shape, markings, habits and habitats before you look at birds will allow you spend more time watching birds and less time rummaging through the book. Use the guide in the field as a reference only after you have observed the bird as closely as possible.
When you are looking at birds, they often don't stay still long enough for you to make detail observations. If you can make a quick sketch to help you remember what the bird looks like. After seeing a bird you can't identify, first indicate identifying features like the body shape, beak, legs and note the color pattern on your sketch.
Because birds are living creatures adapted to specific life styles they exhibit a wide range of characteristics which aid in identification. Since people are very visual creatures most try to identify birds by visual characteristics such as color which can lead to incorrect identification. However, if you are willing to spend a little time doing some background studying, learning to identify and enjoy the birds around you is simply a matter of asking the right questions. If you can answer these basic questions about a bird you should be able to identify it correctly. The questions are basic and may sound a little familiar.
What does the bird look like?
Most people focus on the color of a bird but this can be misleading. Lighting and the time of year can greatly change the color of a bird. An Indigo Bunting appears completely black if it is sitting in the shade, but when it darts out into the sunlight for a tasty morsel it will instantly and magically turn a bright indigo blue like a neon sign. Hummingbirds are the same way. You can't see the color on the male if the light isn't right. Then there is the Goldfinch which is bright yellow in the spring and summer but the rest of the year is a drab green. So you can't rely solely on color.
When looking at a bird first look at the bird as a whole. Ask questions such as:

How big is it? Relate the size to something you already know. It's a good idea to memorize three or four birds of different sizes such as a sparrow, robin, crow and/or turkey. Then you can note how the size of the bird compares to them.

What shape is it? Tall and skinny, short and plump, etc. Oftentimes a bird's silhouette is all you can see. Fortunately, that's an excellent clue to its identity. Analyzing this information should help you narrow down your possibilities.

After you have an overall picture of the bird, then look more closely at things like the beak, tail, wings, color, etc.
Where is the bird located?
As you spend more time observing birds you will discover many of them seem to look alike. A sparrow has a certain look about it - small and brown - but several finches, wrens and warblers are also small and brown. Now what? Stop and take a look around you. What type of habitat are you standing in? Are you mowing the lawn, hiking a mountain trail, wading at the beach? Even during migration birds prefer certain habitats and seldom deviate from them. You are not going to find a Great Blue Heron in the desert or a Roadrunner in a forest, Knowing what birds should be in what habitat will also help you eliminate species.
What is the bird doing?
Is it soaring, hovering, or gliding? Is it wading in water or perched high in a tree? Even something as subtle as the bobbing of the tail could be a determining factor between one bird and another.
What does the bird sound like?
You can tell birds apart by their voices just like you can your friends. In fact some birds can only be identified by their voice. Birds such as the Whip-poor-will are seldom if ever seen but very often heard. Other birds like some flycatchers look identical and can only be identified by their voice. Learn the songs and calls of the common birds around you first. Take them one at a time. This will help you avoid spending a lot of time 'chasing' a song thinking it is a new bird. Songs & calls are also the first indication there are birds in the area.
All these questions may seem a little daunting but they really aren't. If you start with what you know and eliminate those species it can't possibly be, you have a better chance of correctly identifying a bird. But don't stop there. BIRD WATCHING does include being able to identify a bird, but the active word in the phrase is WATCHING. That's when the fun really begins!
 
Bird Identification
For Beginning Birders
Bird ID 101 [.pdf] [.ppt]
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