Article and Photos By: Evan Glynn
While knowing field marks is a great tool for identifying bids, often times those field marks might not be helpful to confirm an identification. On the other hand, field marks might be so specific that it’s hard to know where to start. One can easily feel overwhelmed with a bird book seemingly full of ‘little brown birds’. What if a bird is seen briefly flying overhead? What if you are only viewing a silhouette due to low light? What if it is dark and you can only hear it vocalizing? Knowing some additional identification techniques can help you narrow down your ID to at least be in the right ballpark.
Shape and size:
Size is useful for determining large vs. small birds, however size isn’t always my favorite visual key. Without scale, someone might think a bird “looked huge” or “it was definitely bigger than a robin”, but depth perception and lighting can cause our eyes to play tricks on us. Unless there is scale for size, shape is probably more valuable. Describing a bird as stocky, sleek, thin, plump, compact, etc. can help you determine an ID. Birds can have large heads, flat heads, long legs, short legs, squared tails, forked tails, long tails, pointed wings, crests, etc. Describing a songbird-sized sleek bird with a crest immediately narrows it down to just a few candidates.
Many key field marks are attributed to plumage. Being able to identify a basic color pattern should help with any ID. If a bird is overall red, blue, orange, etc., you’ve already narrowed down the number of candidates from hundreds to tens. If colored parts are visible, these are obviously helpful when determining an identification. Generally, noting specifics like the color of the head, any colored facial pattern, wing patches, and tail bands can further narrow down your search for the proper ID.
Often unnoticed, behavioral cues can seriously help when it comes to bird ID. Was the bird in a small flock or solo? Was it feeding on the ground or up in the trees? Could you see what it was feeding on – berries or bugs? Was it actively flittering between branches? Did it crawl up or down tree trunks? Did it frequently bob its tail up and down? Did it prefer to run along the ground or make small flights? When watching birds, make notes about their behaviors. All birds have unique and interesting behaviors that should help with your identification skills.
There are a few birds that live in a majority of habitats, but in general, most have at least some type of preference. Some other species only live in extremely specific areas. Kirtland’s warblers nest in small jack pine forests that have recently been burned, and only when those jack pine trees are around 5 to 15 feet tall. Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in longleaf pine forests with very little understory, and only nest in pine trees that have been softened by disease. While migration is an exception for where birds are being seen (anywhere between the tropics and Maine (or north) is essentially fair game for any migratory species), taking note of specific habitat may help you reach a definitive ID. Different habitats like forest, fragmented forest, forest edge, shrubby, wetland, park, open area surrounded by trees, backyard, grassland, marshy, etc. are all specific areas where certain birds can be found.
While song and call are technically different things, I tend to use the term ‘vocalization’ to encompass all sounds that a bird may make. Learning vocalizations is a big step forward for any birder. The vast majority of birds that I see when birding are ‘heard then seen’, meaning I heard it first, was able to identify based on the vocalization, and then was able to find that specific individual. While birds make any number of different vocalizations, learning songs is a great way to start. Numerous companies offer CDs or digital downloads of bird songs. Play those throughout your day, in your car, or on the treadmill, and you’ll know those first 20-50 songs in no time! Another option is to record your own and then post the recorded song to any online bird identification page. Experienced members love to share their knowledge and experience. Eventually, hearing and knowing bird songs becomes a part of everyday life. You can walk your dog around the park and subconsciously identify a few dozen birds – no binoculars needed!