Birding is beautiful in its simplicity: all you need to do is go for a walk, or look out the window, and see what you see. Spotting a new bird, however, is far easier than correctly identifying it. The next time you spot a new or unfamiliar species, grab your field guide and use these simple guidelines to narrow your search.
Size & Shape
The first thing you’ll notice about a bird, even at a glance, is its size. The shape of features like a beak, head and tail also give important clues to a bird’s identity, so be sure to note them carefully. While these details may be hard to distinguish at first, they will become more and more obvious the longer you practice.
While a bird’s colour can vary depending on whether it’s young or mature, male or female, and what season it is, this remains one of the easiest tools in making an identification. Just think of the bright red plumage of a male Northern Cardinal, or the brilliant azure feathers of a Blue Jay. Other birds will be more challenging, and identifying them may require noting the colour of not just the feathers on their head, breast, wings and tail, but the colour of the beak and legs, too.
Anything from what a bird is feeding on, sitting on or nesting in, to the way it flaps its wings can give important clues to its identity. When observing a flotilla of waterfowl, for example, note whether they are diving under the water or just dunking their heads and upper bodies (a behaviour known as “dabbling”). Or when observing a bird in a tree, you can note whether it appears to be hunting flying insects, searching for seed pods, or pecking insects off the bark.
While many species of birds are surprisingly adaptable, most have strong preferences about where they want to live based on the type of food and shelter available there. With the help of a field guide, which will tell you where a species is likely to be found at which times of year, the location of a bird sighting can help narrow down the possibilities. Most importantly, however, don’t forget to enjoy the process of learning. Even the most experienced birders misidentify birds, and the detective work is all part of the fun.
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