How to Identify British Wild Birds

Written by robert van der does
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How to Identify British Wild Birds
The distinctive goldfinch has become a regular visitor to some British gardens. (chardonneret elegant. image by Christophe Fouquin from

Ornithology is a popular form of wildlife study in Britain. You don't have to know a lot about birds to enjoy watching them, but curiosity usually leads a novice birdwatcher to want to identify the different species he sees in his garden or at the local park. Experts use a series of guidelines to help them conclude what is it they are observing, all of which can be remembered and carried out.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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Things you need

  • Binoculars
  • Field guide to British birds
  • Weatherproof clothing (if birdwatching outside)

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  1. 1

    Familiarise yourself with your field guide so you can quickly find the pages with the illustrations of all the possible options for the birds you spot. In some guides, for instance, birds are classified by their families while in others they are sectioned by the type of location they are found in.

  2. 2

    Note the bird's size, shape and specific characteristics. Also take notice of the beak, legs, wings and body shape. Raptors, for instance, have hooked bills and curved, sharp talons for tearing meat, while waders' beaks are generally long and flat.

  3. 3

    Notice the colouring and patterning on the back and wings, the underparts, the head and the tail. This can be difficult in bad light, but try to pick out any bold body markings such as a (British) robin's red breast or the blue "wingbars" of the jay. An all-black bird, for example, seemingly smaller than a carrion crow or rook, can be confirmed as a jackdaw by the grey on its nape. Wing and tail plumage is vital in identifying several species as a rear view is often all you may see.

    How to Identify British Wild Birds
    Jackdaws are small crows with a noticeable grey "hood" and white eyes. (jackdaw image by Henryk Olszewski from
  4. 4

    Pay attention to the bird's movement and behaviour. On the ground some species hop, like blackbirds, while others walk or run, like starlings, and some do all three, like magpies. Swimming birds can be differentiated by how they move through water. In flight, bigger birds sometimes have slow, ponderous wing beats like grey herons and the larger gulls. Finches and woodpeckers bound up and down, and pigeons are fast and direct. Note any peculiar mannerisms like the tail-wagging of wagtails and the hovering, often by the side of the freeway, of kestrels.

  5. 5

    Take account of the surroundings. Although there are more than 100 species of birds found in Britain, they can be divided into types of habitat in which they live. About 15 species typically inhabit British suburban gardens, such as house sparrow, starling, blackbird, wood pigeon, robin and various members of the tit and finch families. It is important to get to know which birds are found in which locations, be they woodland, upland, coastal, freshwater, moorland etc., so the unfamiliar becomes more noticeable. You should also be aware that some birds relocate at different times of the year. Common birds on land in Britain include (from smallest to biggest) the blue tit, house sparrow, blackbird, feral pigeon, carrion crow and pheasant. On fresh water you can find moorhens, mallards and mute swans. And on the coast there are smaller black-headed gulls and larger herring gulls.

  6. 6

    Listen for bird calls and songs. Some birds are so alike in appearance that the noise they make is the only way to distinguish them, such as the willow warbler and the chiffchaff. This is particularly key in woodland areas where bird songs can be heard all around you in spring and summer, but far fewer birds are visible.

  7. 7

    Find an expert. If you still have difficulty identifying a bird, it is a good idea to make notes and later ask an expert. Try to learn the correct names for the parts of the bird's body.

Tips and warnings

  • If you are in an area where you are likely to see unfamiliar species of birds, you might want to carry your camera as a photo could help you identify the bird later.
  • Note that often there are differences in colour between immature birds and adults, sometimes making them appear to be different species. Some birds also change plumage according to the seasons. Your field guide should help you with this.
  • Birds sometimes turn up in unlikely places. While most field guides indicate that peregrines nest around coastal cliffs, a recent phenomenon has seen them nest on high buildings in the middle of urban centres.

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