Basics of Bird Identification

by Mary Ellen K. on June 1, 2011

In the past month, a friend of mine has put up her bird feeders for the season and is asking me questions about what bird feeder to use with what seed, what to do about the bear that took down her favorite feeder, and what bird was it that she saw at her bird feeder? We have worked through the bird seed and bird feeder to match her needs and I have taught her the lesson I have learned too many times with the black bears we have in Northern Wisconsin… bring your bird feeders in at night. So that leaves bird identification.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

She came to me and said that she saw a bird as big as a robin with red on the head in her feeder. And it was not a woodpecker. I asked her what she was feeding in the feeder (Fruit n Berry bird seed mix) and if she remembered the size or shape of the beak (heavier beak), any distinguishing markings on the body (black with all white on underside). I searched my memory and my field guide for such a bird that would live in our neck of the woods. The only thing I came up with is the Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak….but it has a red chest, not a red head. I posed my answer to her nicely and asked, “Are you sure it had red on its head… or was it on its chest?” The next morning she told me it was back in her bird feeder and that I was right – it was a Rose Breasted Grosbeak.

The Indigo Bunting's brilliant blue coloring and its unique song make this wild bird a real treasure.

The Indigo Bunting's brilliant blue coloring and its unique song make this wild bird a real treasure.

Since that day, we have formed a great bond because of our love for watching and identifying birds at our back window. Last week, she sighted an Indigo Bunting in her yard and hoped to see it closer; this week she was thrilled with the sight of it in her feeder at her window! She signed up for a bird watching day at a local reserve. It is great to see her get into this and for us to share this interest.

However, I wanted to bring you back to her first sighting of the Rose Breasted Grosbeak because I thought it would be a great subject to write about and share what I know about trying to identify birds and what tricks there are. I would love to hear from others and all of your tried and true theories.

Basics on Bird Identification

I learned to identify birds by not running to my field guide when I saw the bird. Inevitably, the bird will be gone when you get back with your book. So, stop and observe the following or ask these question to help you identify a bird when you go back to your field guide.

The brilliant red of a male Northern Cardinal makes him easily identifiable.

The brilliant red of a male Northern Cardinal makes him easily identifiable.

COLOR

  • What color is it?
  • Are its wings a different color that the underside?
  • Different color head?
  • My friend identified her bird as black with a white underside.

MARKINGS

  • Many birds have unique markings on their head or tail that make them easily identified.
  • My friend identified the red markings. Remember where the markings are. That is important.

SIZE

  • What size was it?
  • Identify size by the birds you are most familiar with.
  • Was it the size of a finch?
  • Was it the size of a robin?
  • Was it the size of a crow?
  • My friend said that her bird was as big as a robin.

BEAK SHAPE AND SIZE

  • Was it short/long?
  • Was it thin or thick?
  • The bird’s beak can identify what category of bird it may fall into.
  • The beak on my friend’s bird was heavy.

SONG

  • Listen
  • Its voice can give it away
Hummingbirds can fly right, left, up, down, backwards, even upside down.

Hummingbirds can fly right, left, up, down, backwards, even upside down.

FLIGHT

  • How does it fly?
  • Any things you missed about its coloring or markings once it flew?
  • My friend identified the underside of her bird to be white when she saw it fly.

HABITAT/BEHAVIOR

  • Where did you see it?
  • What was it doing?
  • On the ground eating?
  • In a tree eating berries?
  • Where it is and what it is doing can give help identify the bird. Ground feeder or fruit eating, etc.
  • My friend observed that her bird was feeding on a fruit and berry blend.

So just like we are taught when we were little, “before we cross the street…”
STOP
LOOK
LISTEN

then go get your field guide to look up what you have observed.

The Finch Sock Feeder is a simple, convenient feeding solution.

The Finch Sock Feeder is a simple, convenient feeding solution.

[[CLOSED:]] Ready to enter to win a Finch Sock Feeder? It’s easy to enter, simply leave a comment in this post telling us any tricks you have to identify birds… or any fun activities you do with friends or family to enjoy bird watching.

One lucky winner will be selected on Friday, June 3, 2011 at noon CST.

* No purchase is necessary to participate. You should be a legal resident of the United States and 18 years or older. Void where prohibited. Shipping to winner will be supplied by Drs. Foster and Smith. One lucky winner will be chosen at noon CST on Friday, June 3, 2011. Winner will be announced on http://www.dfs-pet-blog.com/2011/06/bird-identification/. Sponsor: Foster & Smith, Inc., P.O. Box 100, Rhinelander, WI 54501-0100. Employees and their immediate family members are not eligible to enter. Winner will be notified by email, and must reply with their shipping information within 7 days. Failure to reply within the 7 days will forfeit your prize.


Mary Ellen and her husband have two children and Jager, a lab/husky mix adopted from a local rescue organization. Mary Ellen did not grow up in a household with any pets, but it took only a few months working at Drs. Foster and Smith to make her realize she had to have one. She is a merchandising manager here and holds a BS in Business Administration and Marketing from Marquette University.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosemary June 1, 2011 at 8:11 am

Birds I recognize: Robin, Cardinal (male and female both), Mockingbird, and Blue Jay. I can also tell the difference between a duck and a chicken. Okay, throw in egrets and seagulls also. And pigeons, doves and pheasants.

Nancy June 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Must say first that Drs. F&S “Fruit and Berry Cuisine” has brought many more varieties of birds to my Virginia feeders. I too sighted a Male Rose Breasted Grosbeak for the first time ever, this spring on my new Drs. F&S Aqua Seed Trumpet feeder. I was able to get some photos from indoors and then able to “sneak” up and get a photo outdoors before I ever thought of looking it up. Often they are not beautiful but a photo from indoors (through windows) helps me quite a bit when looking up a bird for ID. Unfortunately I have not seen the grosbeak again. Often have (some seasonally) cardinals, robins, hummingbirds, many types of sparrows, house finches, goldfinches, juncos, crows, blue jays, starlings, grackles, red winged black birds, Carolina wrens, downy woodpeckers, sapsuckers (red and yellow bellied), a Cooper’s Hawk and even saw a pileated woodpecker once and was able to get some photos… In my experience I have yet to find a truly squirrel proof feeder; resistant ones are usually only resistant to damage, not the squirrels emptying them… 🙂

MONICA POPADUKE June 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm

My family LOVES to feed the birds. We have many feeders and bird baths around our yard. We just filled up our finch socks with thistle and cannot wait to see the Goldfinch. We get many woodpeckers, morning doves, cardinals, orioles and hummingbirds in our yard all the time. We even put up a feeder for the squirrels to try to keep them from hoarding all the birdseed. Great site here….thank you for keeping it going. The information is very helpful.

Beth Zelten June 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I agree with the comment. When you see a new bird, just watch and remember. Afterward, get the book to try and identify it. We put feeders of all kinds in our yard. Close to the house, some farther away. Platform feeders, other seed feeders and nyger seed feeders and sugar water feeders. We’re blessed with a HUGE abundance of different birds especially during migration. Our bird book gets a work out during this time! Important to have a good book. Nothing makes us happier! 🙂

Dee June 2, 2011 at 4:00 pm

My cats LOVE to watch the birds at the feeders through our windows. Bird watching is as entertaining as watching TV in my opinion. I have my grandmother’s old bird book that I check whenever I see a bird that I can not identify.

karrie branfort June 2, 2011 at 4:45 pm

we were given a bird book as a gift, and we love it. we have found that we have many more kinds of birds than we thought.

MYRNA BAXTER June 2, 2011 at 10:58 pm

I TRY TO HAVE A CAMERA WITH ME WHEN I WATCH BIRDS. AS THE SAYING GOES “A PICTURE IS WORTH THOUSAND WORDS”. I USE ALL CAPS DUE TO BAD EYESIGHT.

Aaron June 3, 2011 at 9:59 am

I only seem to be able to attract yellow finches in my area in Milwaukee. Strange! Maybe a few more feeders would help 🙂

Mike C June 3, 2011 at 11:40 am

If you are having issues identifying birds and have an iPhone, there are several apps out there that can help. Unfortunately, with living in the city, I usually only see blackbirds, but have seen finches from time-to-time!

Ellen B. June 3, 2011 at 12:18 pm

The lucky person to receive a free Finch Sock Birdfeeder in our June 3, 2011 giveaway is Aaron. Thanks to everyone for sharing your bird stories with us! Aaron, I will contact you by email to get your shipping info.

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