How to Identify Backyard Birds

Everyone has a connection with birds.  Some people like to watch birds in their yard.  Some people like to feed birds.  Some people like to eat birds.  Some people like to watch Hitchcock films about birds.  Some people like Big Bird, Daffy Duck or Woody Woodpecker.  Some people like to play Angry Birds.  Some people like to shoot birds.  And some people like to flip the bird.  At any rate, birds are all around us.  I really enjoy watching birds interact and have been an avid birder for many years now.  Over the last few years I’ve had several opportunities to study birds in the field.  In 2011, I got to spend a summer chasing shorebirds around the Gulf Coast.  The last two summers I’ve participated in songbird point counts in Indiana.  Now, I’m here to give you a few tips on how to identify the birds that come to your feeder and drop a bomb on your car.

The first feature that most people naturally zone in on when it comes to birds is color.  Determining what colors a bird is wearing is definitely a start toward proper identification.  However, when someone asks me about a brown bird that they saw, identification is difficult.  If you see a bird with the colors of the rainbow, then I can definitively tell you that it is a skittle bird.  Distinguishing color patterns is a good way to take an extra step in the identification process.  If all you can remember about a bird was that it was gray, you’ll have a hard time finding it in a bird book.  But if you remember that a bird was gray with a black cap and black throat, then you probably saw a chickadee.

Carolina Chickadee Photo

At this point I should probably mention I’m looking at birds in the U.S.  It’s entirely possible that there are 3 million species of birds in South America that have a black cap and throat.  Ask yourself the following questions.  What color is the head?  What about the bill/beak?  What color is the stomach?  If the bird has belly stripes, what color are they?  If you notice a white spots and stripes on a black back, you may be staring at a woodpecker.

Red-bellied Woodpecker PhotoDowny Woodpecker Photo Red-cockaded Woodpecker Photo

Obviously, color patterns alone are not usually going to be enough to identify a bird.  I also know that you won’t always have 10 minutes to stare at a bird and memorize every key feature.  If you have a camera, then taking a picture is a great way to help ensure proper identification.  Or you can catch the bird.  I’ve found that a butterfly net is particularly effective for capturing hummingbirds.  The only problem is, hummingbirds fly fast and have been known to kill eagles.  I’m not making that part up.  Your bare hands can be used when trying to grasp an eagle or hawk.  Besides color, what else should you focus on when you see a new bird?  Size, shape and behavior are all important characteristics.  You should definitely pay attention to the habitat you are in.  Of course, there is also the song or call of the bird that can play a major role in identification.

Let’s take a look at size.  When you see a bird in your yard, try to estimate how large or small it is.  Make a guess as to how many inches long the bird is.  Or if you’re basically anywhere besides the U.S., you’ll estimate in centimeters.  Don’t tell anyone, but I use the metric system during point counts to estimate distances.  Anyway, the point is to get a range to place a bird within.  Also very helpful is to compare the size of the bird with the size of birds you already know.  If you can tell that a bird is smaller than a cardinal, then at least you have narrowed down the possibilities.  The size of the bill can also be indicative of the species you are observing.  Take a look at these two woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker PhotoAdult male

A Downy Woodpecker is usually between 6 and 7 inches long, while a Hairy Woodpecker is usually around 9 inches long.  Obviously size is an important factor in identification here as these two birds are almost identical in appearance.  But let’s say you can’t tell for sure how long the woodpecker is.  How could you know which woodpecker you’re looking at?  Take a close look at the bills of these 2 birds.  A Downy has a bill that is approximately 1/3 the length of its head, while a Hairy’s bill is often almost equal to the length of its head.  Now can you guess which woodpecker is which?  There are other details which could help you distinguish these 2 birds apart but knowing the bill size definitely makes things easier.

Christmas cookies are calling to me now.  I realize this was a short introduction, but don’t worry, there is much more to come.  I will write more about backyard birds in my next few blogs.  Be prepared to look more at the size of birds, as well as shapes, behaviors and habitats.  There will be more pictures and possibly a quiz.  I might even share a few of my adventures with birds.  If you’re interested, you can take a look at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, which is a great resource for birders and is where all these pictures are from.  I leave you with a bird that is often associated with Christmas.

Northern Cardinal Photo



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