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Basics of bird ID

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 in Swanton, Vermont, June 22, 2014, by bobvt.
Gray Catbird in Swanton, Vermont, June 22, 2014, by bobvt.

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.

Favorite field guides

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman


The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Sixth Edition by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer


The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Donald and Lillian Stokes

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by Bill Thompson III

Birds of Eastern North America: A Photographic Guide by Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small

Birds of Western North America: A Photographic Guide by Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small


Once you have a set of field marks in mind or jotted down, consult a field guide. Several excellent field guides are listed here. 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.

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Originally Published

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