Bird silhouette identification

Updated November 21, 2016

Knowing a bird's silhouette is the first step in identifying a species correctly. Bird watching is a fun and interesting hobby that can be done anywhere there are birds. It can be done with the aid of a good field guide, and an optional, but helpful pair of binoculars.

The facts

Silhouettes tell you a bird's body shape, size, proportion of the head, wings, tail and legs, the shape of the bill and the bird's posture without the distraction of colour and pattern. This is a perfect way for beginners to learn to identify birds quickly.

Bird groups

When identifying birds by their silhouette, they fall into five basic groupings: Perching and Tree-Clinging, Predatory, Song Birds, Upland Ground Bird and Waterfowl and Marshland Birds.


Locate a bird you need to identify. Look at its shape, including the shape of its head and wings. Judge the overall size in relation to other birds nearby. Now look at the size and shape of the bill. Some birds use bills for eating seeds, while others use them to dig in the ground. The bill is shaped for the task it is made for. Make a guess at what type of bird it is, then consult your field guide to see if you are correct. With a little practice and observation you will soon be able to identify certain birds by silhouette alone.

Other considerations

Behaviour is another aspect to consider when identifying a bird by its silhouette. How a bird feeds, moves about, whether it flies in a flock, or exhibits any nervous habits are all signs that will help identify it from a distance.

Common birds

Several common birds are easily identified by their silhouettes. A crow is large, with a stout body and medium length tail. It has a heavy, strong bill. A kestrel is smaller with a streamlined falcon shape and long pointed wings and tail. Its bill is short and hooked, and its feet have sharp talons. A cardinal is a medium-sized songbird that resembles a finch with a crested head and strong conical seed-eating bill. A jay is a mid-size relative of the crow, except it has a long tail. Some jays have crests on their heads.

These are just a few of the types of birds most people see everyday. Study the section on bird silhouettes in your field guide and soon you will be able to identify any bird you see, no matter how far away it is.

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