Getting started

Basics of bird ID

How to use color, size, markings, and song to identify the birds you see, and 11 good books that we think will make your birdwatching more enjoyable.
Published: 2/14/2012

The first thing that registers in the mind upon seeing a bird is the combination of size and color. As a frame of reference, consider three birds common to virtually everyone: a sparrow, robin, and crow. When a bird pops into view, you might say, “It’s a gray robin-size bird” or “The bird I saw was about sparrow-size and blue.”

Gray Catbird Photo by Garvin Swim

Gray Catbird
Photo by Garvin Swim

Field marks

Once you have determined the general color and size, try to pick up any distinguishing features such as colored bars on the wings, a cap on the head, or a ring around each eye. Hopefully, if the bird stays in view long enough, you will have time to build a mental picture of the bird with enough field marks, as they are called, to make identification simpler.

Consider the “gray robin-size bird.” You’ve already eliminated many birds such as sparrows, finches, and warblers by judging its size. Now look for other distinguishing features. You may see a black cap and a rusty-colored patch under the tail, two more identifying marks. Listen for its song or call note. You may hear a distinctive catlike “mew.” Also note its habitat. Is the bird found in brushy areas or along a wooded edge? Keep these all in mind, or better yet, record what you see and hear in a notebook.

Bird books

Once you have a set of field marks in mind or jotted down, consult a field guide. Several excellent field guides are listed below. Most birders carry one with them into the field. A large vest pocket or fanny pack will hold your guide for quick reference.

The gray bird with the catlike sound? Paging through the songbird section in a field guide will reveal the Gray Catbird.

Some of our favorite bird books

Field guides

Reference books

Additional resources

Your computer, CD player, and other electronic devices offer additional ways to learn about birds. Instructive audio CDs and MP3 players provide easy and fun means of learning the songs and calls of birds. CD-ROMs and certain handheld devices go a step further, combining sounds with pictures, so you can improve your skills not only by ear but by sight as well.

Many websites do much the same thing and more. Here are a few sites to get you started:

Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds