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How to identify common wild birds

Updated April 14, 2017

Learning to identify common wild birds can be a rewarding process. Not only will you learn more about the birds that inhabit your backyard, but you'll also be able to more fully appreciate the birds you encounter on a daily basis. Bird identification enthusiasts (called "birders") often make it their goal to see and identify every type of bird in their area. Many birders keep a life list of all the birds they have seen. Novice birders often find that identifying common wild birds is a logical start to this hobby.

Use a field guide to local birds to determine what types of birds are common to your area and to learn the type of vocabulary you'll need to use when describing birds. Most field guides include a glossary that can help you become as specific as possible when describing the parts of a bird.

Find a bird that you want to identify, and position yourself so that you can see it well. If the bird is difficult to clearly see, use binoculars to get a better view.

Take notes on the bird's size and shape. You do not need to know the bird's exact size, but rather its general size relative to other birds. Is the bird you see closer to the size of a raven, a robin or a sparrow, for example. When determining the bird's shape, consider the size of its head relative to its body, whether it is compact or lanky, if it has any crests, the size and shape of its tail and bill and the length of its legs and neck.

Note the bird's colouration. It is important to be as specific as possible. Note any changes in colour from one body part to the next, and write down any markings that you see.

Notice the behaviour of the bird. Does the bird hop along the ground or scurry vertically up a tree trunk?

Note the habitat that you saw the bird in. Not all birds can be found in all habitats, so it is important to note whether you came across the bird in a field, forest, near a body of water or at a backyard feeder, for example.

Compare the notes you took to possible candidates in your field guide to determine what kind of bird you have seen.

Tip

Some people draw a sketch of an unknown bird or take a photo. If you do sketch a bird, try to be as detailed and accurate as possible, and use the sketch as a supplement to notes, not a replacement. Do not get discouraged if you have difficulty identifying common birds. Identifying birds is a skill that takes time to develop. If you have trouble with identification, check with your local birding group or conservation centre. Experts are normally more than happy to help novice birders with identification.

Warning

Never attempt to touch or harass any wild bird.

Things You'll Need

  • Field guide to area birds
  • Binoculars (optional)
  • Pencil
  • Notebook
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