How to Identify Backyard Birds: Part 2

In my first blog on identifying birds (click here if you missed it), I wrote about using color patterns and size to help narrow down potential candidates.  In this installment, I will very briefly touch on size again before examining how to use shapes and bill marks in bird identification.  Most of the birds I am going to look at in this post you probably won’t actually see in your backyard.  Feel free to complain or sue me.  As I mentioned in my last post, when you are watching a new bird, you can use other birds or objects for comparison to estimate a size range.  Bill size is also important in determining whether you are looking at a Hairy or Downy Woodpecker.

Hairy Woodpecker PhotoDowny Woodpecker Photo

(Hairy Woodpecker photo by Christopher Wood, Downy Woodpecker photo by Ronaldok)

For those of you who live near the ocean, or like to visit the beach, size is also an important factor in differentiating a Greater Yellowlegs from a Lesser Yellowlegs.  As its names implies, the Greater Yellowlegs is larger with an average length of 11-14 inches while the Lesser Yellowlegs is usually around 10 inches long.  Now there are little differences between the 2 species besides size, but again, size is very important to making a proper identification.  You should also know that the Greater Yellowlegs moves like a lumbering Woolly Mammoth while the Lesser Yellowlegs is capable of running up to 30 mph!  Okay, maybe I made that up but I just wanted to throw Woolly Mammoth into this post.

 Breeding adult

(Left – Greater Yellowlegs, Right – Lesser Yellowlegs)

Many species of shorebirds are notoriously difficult to tell apart.  I spent a summer in the Gulf Coast searching for beach-nesting shorebirds and believe me, trying to figure out what sandpiper or tern you are looking at can be very frustrating!  Now if the birds would just sit on my lap while I examined them closely, things would be much easier.  You know what makes birding harder?  When a colony of terns is dive-bombing you!  When I was walking on beaches along the coast (Sometimes up to 12 miles a day!), I would often comes across a colony of Least Terns.  I liked to call them “little screamers” because they would scream as they dive-bombed me to protect their eggs.  They also occasionally dropped a bomb on my binoculars but because they were kind of cute and I wanted to set a good example for their chicks, I did not retaliate.  Both size and shape come in handy when learning how to distinguish terns from gulls.  Take a close look at the pictures below.

Laughing Gull Photo

(Left – Common Tern, Right – Laughing Gull)

Both terns and gulls are commonly seen around ocean shores.  Some species also spend time around freshwater lakes.  Terns are generally smaller than gulls and often have more slender bodies.  Also, take a look at the shape of the wings.  Terns have narrow pointed wings while gulls have broader wings.  Pay attention to the bills as well.  Terns have straight sharp bills while gulls will usually have a tiny hook at the end of their bill.   Some terns also have a forked tail.  Here are some more pictures of terns and gulls.

(Least Terns aka Little Screamers)

(Left – Picture of Herring Gull from Cornell Lab, Right – Ring-billed Gull from

Look at the bills of the gulls above.  See the mark each one has on its bill?  That’s a great way to make an identification.  The bird on the left is a Herring Gull, which is a large gull that likes to scavenge along shorelines and lakes.  Herring Gulls have a red spot near the tip of their bill.  Also, Herring Gulls are fat . . . well, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls them beefy, so we’ll go with that.  Because these gulls go through a variety of plumage changes, their large size and thick bills are key in their identification.  Of course, the red spot on the bill is very useful as well.  The bird on the right is a Ring-billed Gull, named for the black ring around its bill.  Ring-billed Gulls are often found at dumps or shopping centers throughout inland areas.  In other words, they are trash-eaters.

Here is one final set of pictures that shows the importance of paying attention to a bird’s bill, as well as the shape of its head.

Sandwich Tern Photo

(Sandwich Tern picture from Cornell Lab, Gull-billed Tern picture from

These terns have the characteristic straight bills and pointed wings which you cannot clearly see because they are folded up.  Look closely at the bills.  First of all, these terns both have black bills, while most terns have orange bills.  This would be an important feature to remember if you saw one of these birds in the wild. Secondly, the tern on the left has a yellow tip, which along with the crested head identifies it as a Sandwich Tern.  The tern on the right is a Gull-billed Tern and does not have a yellow tip or a crested head.  Yes, I know, I’ve been comparing gulls to terns and now there’s a Gull-billed Tern.  Terrific.  Anyway, the Gull-billed Tern is so named for its larger-than-normal bill.

Hopefully these concepts of sizes and shapes and bills will aid you in bird identification.  There’s no way I could touch on every aspect of this but my goal is to give a basic overview of what to look for when viewing a new bird.  My next post will expound a bit more on the shape of birds by looking at birds of prey.  I will also examine the importance of behavior and habitat in discerning a bird’s identity.  Finally, I will briefly touch on songs and tell a few stories about my experiences with birds.  Now I have to go back to shooting cardinals at pigs in Angry Birds.  By the way, did you hear about the tern that believed everything he read?  He was gullible.  Okay, I’m done now.


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