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Bird Watching: How to Identify Birds

Woodpecker feeding on a bird suet feeder.

Being able to identify wild birds by sight alone is a skill that most bird watchers spend a lifetime trying to perfect. Whether you are a serious bird watcher trying for a Big Year or you just enjoy bird watching for fun in your backyard, you can learn how to identify bird species. It's as simple as getting close enough to see the bird, watching, and listening.

Here are some tips on how to improve your bird watching identification skills:

  • Get a closer view
  • Listen to the bird's song
  • Observe the bird's behavior
  • Write down what you see
  • Read a bird watcher's guide

Use Binoculars

Use binoculars to get a closer view. 8 x 40 full size binoculars are best for bird watching so you should purchase the best you can afford.

Write it Down

Writing down what you have noticed definitely solidifies the clues in your head. Take the time to jot down a few words in your notebook. Keep a notepad and pen by your kitchen window and describe what you see. Take the time to go over the bird, from head to tail. What color is it on every part of its body? What does its bill look like?

Look at the overall shape of the bird, as shape is one of the best aids to identification. Is it heavy or sleek? Is the tail long or short? Is the head big or small? Are the legs long or short? Log the answers to these questions so you can go back later and figure out what bird species you actually saw.

Bird Behavior

Another way to identify birds is by observing their behavior. Some bird species give themselves away by tail bobbing or "dancing" along the limbs of trees. These behaviors are part of a bird's language and a way to communicate with other birds. Learn to notice and remember these clues just as much as the color of the bird's plumage.

Bird Songs

What kind of sounds is it making? Learning songs and calls is another great way to help you identify a bird. You can develop an ear for bird sounds, songs, and calls by listening to recordings of them.

Invest in a Bird Watching Guide

Invest in a good bird watching guide to identifying birds. It's a great way to get acclimated to bird watching and bird identification.

Remember that like anything, becoming good at identifying birds will take practice. But once you've practiced, you will soon be identifying birds with ease.