Seven Tips On Bird Identification

Image © Jerry Kumery

District Naturalist Ron Skleney lists some tips on bird identification based on a guide written by Kevin Karlson titled "Birding By Impression."

For more background on "Birding By Impression," visit

1. Size: How is it relative to what you know?
Sparrow? Robin? Crow? Hawk?

2. Shape and Structure:

  • Look at body configuration: Fat and dumpy or slender and tapered?


  • Bill shape and length
  • Leg length
  • Wing-to-tail ratio and comparison

Develop a verbal shorthand to describe shape. For instance:
“Fat & dumpy with a short stubby bill” or “Slim & tapered with medium length, dark legs”

3. Behavior: How does it feed, walk, fly or react to danger?
Let’s compare the behavior of a nuthatch versus a brown creeper. Both birds feed by creeping along the sides of trees. The nuthatch feeds by flying to a higher point on the tree trunk and working its way down. The brown creeper feeds by flying to a low point on the trunk and working its way up. By understanding the behavior of these two birds you are able to narrow your ID possibilities.

4. Habitat: Some birds are rarely found away from their preferred habitats. Note the habitat a bird is using when you are in the field. (But…remember, migrating birds may be forced to use uncharacteristic habitats.)

5. Overall Coloration: This refers to the general color of first impression. This is not referring to field marks. Examples: 1) the flash of yellow you see when you spot a yellow-shafted Northern Flicker in flight or 2) the orange-red chest of a cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk helps to identify one of these adult accipiters.

6. Vocalizations: If you really want to bring your ID skills up a notch, start learning bird calls and songs.

7. Comparisons with Nearby Birds: When trying to separate identifications, direct comparisons with birds nearby can be your “ace in the hole.”

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