From sneaky shorebirds to the perpetually perplexing "little streaky brown birds" - bird ID can be tough. Here are some key strategies you can use to narrow down your choices. 

When you see an unfamiliar bird, take a close look - with the right observations, you may be able to figure it out later using field guides or other resources. Notice the following:

Observing a few key characteristics - like relative size, silhouette, proportions - can help you positively ID an unknown bird.

Observing a few key characteristics - like relative size, silhouette, proportions - can help you positively ID an unknown bird.

  • Habitat: Where you see the bird is your first clue. It's unlikely that a pelican will be hanging out in a woodland! Noting your habitat type is your first clue in the bird ID puzzle.
  • Body size and shape: compare the silhouette of the bird to other birds you know! Is it smaller than a robin? Larger than a chickadee? Does it sit tall like a hawk, or lean forward like a crow? Here's a handy guide.
  • Proportions: judging size can sometimes be difficult if there is nothing nearby to compare a bird to. Judging the proportions of a bird’s body is easier. How long is the tail in proportion to the body? When folded, to the wings extend past the tail tip? How long is the beak in proportion to the head? 
  • Colors: Birds are often easy to identify if you take a careful look at their coloration. Keep an eye out for field marks like wing bars or eye stripes, streaking or spotting on breast feathers, and the general colors on both the upper and underside of the wings. Remember that lighting will affect the way a bird looks: a bird will look much more yellow at dawn than it will on a cloudy afternoon! If a small bird is hopping through a leafy bush, shadows may look like dark patches of color on its body.
  • Beaks and Feet: take careful note of the shapes of these appendages. Different groups of birds all use their beaks and feet for a variety of tasks, and they have become highly specialized. Beaks are especially good for identifying an unknown bird as either a sparrow, finch, or warbler.
  • Movement: Many bird species fly or perch in a way that makes them easily identifiable, and these traits are often mentioned in field guides. Turkey Vultures fly with their wings held in a “V” shape, and they teeter as they soar. Eastern phoebes wag or flick their tails while sitting on a perch. Woodpeckers have an undulating flight pattern. All of these traits can help you identify a bird, sometimes without even needing binoculars!

Try to get a photograph of a bird you can’t identify. Even if it is blurry, it may help you remember field marks later when you have a field guide in hand, or an expert friend you can consult.

You can also try to record a bird’s song using your phone. There are lots of online resources for identifying bird songs - and in some cases, it is the easiest way to ID a bird! 

Be sure to check out our BIRD RESOURCES page for our favorite field guide recommendations. If you're looking to learn from local experts, join us on a field trip or visit our Sanctuaries and other popular birding areas in our region!

Banner photo: Lark sparrow by Phil Brown