Look over there! What bird is that?
One of the most common areas where people struggle in nature studies is being able to confidently identify birds.
This is because birds are almost constantly moving and changing their behavior in response to whatever is happening in the environment.
It can be surprisingly difficult to get that critical closer look and know for sure what birds you’re seeing and hearing outside.
For this reason, bird identification does require some unique skills and very sharp senses in the field.
It might seem tricky at first, but I can tell you from personal experience that with the right techniques & strategy, anyone can learn to identify birds with great confidence.
I first got interested in birds when I was a teenager and was incredibly lucky to have some great mentoring on how to get skilled with identification.
So today I’d like to pass what I’ve learned on to you and share 21 tips to help improve your bird identification skills as quickly & easily as possible.
1. Practice Consciously Looking & Watching
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re struggling to identify birds is simply not taking enough time to slow down & watch.
Many people make the mistake of seeing a bird, getting it in their sight… they watch it for a few seconds and then boom! They’re already walking away, onto something else.
Then it’s only when you get home and you’re trying to look that bird up in a field guide or online that it gets really confusing.
Quite simply – Most people underestimate the amount of time it takes for a bird’s physical characteristics to really soak into your brain.
We have to remember that just because you see a bird, it doesn’t mean your brain has actually registered all the key features of that bird.
So one of the best things you can do to identify birds more easily is simply to slow down and spend plenty of time just watching & looking at birds before moving on to the next thing.
I guarantee that if you spend 10 minutes of high quality time carefully watching that bird and studying it’s appearance, you’ll be much more likely to recognize it later than if you only give it 30 seconds.
It’s a good mindset to remember that we’re not just looking at birds… we’re also training our brains to process sensory information in a way you might have never practiced before.
It does take a bit of time for your brain and sensory awareness to adapt to the new stimulus.
So give yourself enough time to really absorb the identification features from as many possible angles as you can.
2. Try To Get Closer
When it comes to bird identification, another big key to remember is – the closer you get to a bird, the easier it’s going to be to identify.
This should probably be fairly obvious already, however the actual practice of getting closer to birds is something that many people find difficult, so this deserves some extra attention.
Getting closer to birds is a delicate balance because every bird has it’s own individual comfort zone, and every situation is unique.
If you’re already quite close to a bird, then you run the risk of scaring it away… But if you keep too much distance, then you can’t see as much detail.
So a surprisingly major part of bird identification skills is being able to accurately gauge how much closer you can get before a bird will start to get uncomfortable.
The only way to develop this skill is to actually practice getting closer to birds in the field.
Just keep in mind this is mainly a process of trial and error, so don’t expect to get it perfect the first time.
As you practice getting closer to birds, it’s only natural that you’re going to step over the boundaries from time to time.
There will be times when you accidentally scare a bird away before you get a chance to really study it’s characteristics.
This is how you learn the necessary sensitivity to do better next time, so don’t worry about it!
With practice you’ll get better at knowing how close you can get before you’re likely to scare the bird away. Just keep practicing and you will continually improve your ability to get closer to birds.
(And if you really want to get good at this, here’s a few more tips on how you can get closer to animals without scaring them)
3. Use Binoculars
This might seem like another no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at how often people ask me about a bird they tried to identify from far away, and they didn’t even use binoculars to get a closer look.
I can tell you right now, a decent pair of binoculars will dramatically speed up how quickly you learn to identify birds.
Binoculars are kind of like a cheat method to help you get a closer look, without the added risk of scaring birds away.
Now you might say, “But humans didn’t have binoculars thousands of years ago, and they identified birds just fine.”
This is true, but people also didn’t have 9-5 jobs and comfortable indoor homes thousands of years ago.
In modern times, we need every advantage we can get to help us learn faster.
Most people simply don’t have hours of time every day to follow birds around trying to get a closer look. So we need to maximize our time outside for the greatest reward on effort.
Binoculars give you that extra little edge to see more clearly and quickly, and it will really speed up your learning curve.
This is not to say you should become dependant on binoculars. Again, it’s all a matter of balance.
The great thing is there does come a point when you can throw your binoculars away and still identify birds from long distances.
As your eyes become trained on more subtle cues, your ability to identify birds faster and from further distances will become refined, but for now you can think of them like training wheels to help you get there faster.
4. Focus On Learning One Bird At A Time
When you’re first learning the birds, it’s really important to not overwhelm yourself by taking on too much all at once.
If you try to learn too many birds all at once, most likely you’ll end up not retaining any of the important details.
This is detrimental to your learning for two reasons:
- Spreading yourself too thin, you just won’t retain the information, which is basically a waste of time.
- After repeated failures resulting from low retention, you might start to believe you just can’t do it, which is totally not true! You’re just taking the wrong approach.
Instead, I highly recommend when you go out, try to focus on just one bird at a time.
Set your goal to learn that bird as deeply as you possibly can, until it becomes so familiar that you no longer need to think about it.
You can give yourself little awareness challenges like trying to focus on one individual bird for a whole week… or a whole month!
Try to rack up a whole hour of total watch time on one individual bird before moving on to another.
At first – this might seem like a slower way to learn, but in the long run it actually makes a much deeper impact because you’re giving things more time to soak in.
The first bird is always the most challenging, but each subsequent bird you study at this level of depth will become easier & easier.
5. Learn The Most Common Birds First
Another common mistake is trying to learn the most rare birds of an area, before studying the most common birds.
If you can’t even recognize the little juncos & goldfinches in the backyard, you’re doing yourself a disservice by searching for more rare birds.
As with any skill, you always want to start with the easiest and most basic things before moving on to more advanced challenges.
The best birds to begin training your identification skills are always going to be the most common birds living right outside your home every day.
These are the birds you have the greatest chance of getting closer to and watching for longer periods of time.
You want to get to the point where you’ve spent so much time watching these common birds that you can easily recognize them in the flash of an eye.
A good mindset here is that if you have to think about what bird that is for longer than 1 or 2 seconds, then you really don’t know that bird yet.
So start with the most common backyard birds and learn them really well.
Then pretty soon you’ll be ready to move on to more rare species that you don’t see quite as often.
6. Take Notes To Assist Your Memory
One of the best ways to speed up your learning of birds is by taking some simple notes in the field.
Being able to clearly remember what you actually saw is a surprisingly common challenge when studying birds.
Outside you might have the sense that you’re seeing certain ID features very clearly… but then when you get home to look things up, suddenly the image in your mind gets really fuzzy.
This is because your brain hasn’t yet developed the ability to connect what you see on the outside with a fully formed sensory memory on the inside.
You can assist yourself to make this connection by jotting down a few written notes while the memory is still fresh in your mind.
That way when you get home, you can use the notes to help jog your memory and clarify the image in your mind.
My only warning here is don’t become dependant on these notes. These are just to help trigger your own sensory memories of what you saw.
Words on paper is not the same as having a clear image in your mind, however it is an effective way of training your brain to store birds as an image in your mind.
7. Size Is One Of The Best ID Clues
Most people tend to think about bird identification in terms of very small and detailed things like eye patches, or little color splashes and stripes on a tail.
And while these things are certainly useful, in actual practice you very often will not be able to see such small details with clarity.
There are actually much easier ways to identify birds than by squinting your eyes to try and catch some tiny little detail that hopefully matches a bird in your field guide.
In actual practice, the best ID clues are those that can be seen in the blink of an eye, even from long distances.
Now this might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways to identify birds much faster & from further away is simply by looking at the overall size.
One of the first ID questions you always want to ask yourself is, “How big is this bird compared to other birds?”
First you build up some basic points of reference by studying birds that have really obvious size differences like sparrow sized birds vs crow sized birds.
Crows and sparrows have a really obvious size difference that anyone can easily see without any special training or knowledge.
Then as you continue comparing birds in terms of size categories, your distinctions will become gradually more refined and subtle.
You’ll find yourself saying things like, “It was bigger than a crow, but smaller than an eagle” or “It was bigger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin”
Now these comparisons are getting into much finer distinctions that really start to narrow down the list of possible birds in each size category.
Eventually you’ll get to the point where you realize the size of a sparrow flying from 100 feet away looks completely different from the size of a starling.
This is when your bird ID skills will appear almost like magic to those around you.
People will think you have some kind of super human bird sense, but it’s really just that you’ve trained yourself to make subtle distinctions in size.
Incidentally, size is one of the best ways to easily distinguish two of the most commonly confused birds in the world, ravens and crows.
8. Check Out That Beak
Whenever you get an opportunity to take a closer look at birds, it’s a good idea to have a little mental checklist of things to look for.
One of the most useful ID clues that often gets missed in a beginner’s bird watching checklist is the beak.
You can tell a lot about a bird just by it’s beak.
- Some birds have small tweezer-like beaks for catching insects.
- Other birds have big beefy beaks for breaking seeds.
- Some beaks are long, and some beaks are short.
And these are all fairly simple things to look for because the beak of a bird tends to stands out a bit more obviously than many other ID characteristics.
Of course, the beak alone won’t always tell you exactly what species you’re looking at, but it’s a great opportunity to rule out large numbers of birds in a single go.
9. Crests & Crowns
Another key thing to look for with visual bird identification is the top of it’s head.
While this isn’t always useful, there are typically several species in every bio-region that have very distinctive crowns or crests that are easily identified by this one characteristic.
Similar to overall beak shape, the top of a bird’s head can actually be seen from a pretty good distance (at least, more easily than little wing bars and color shading).
Take note when you see an obvious crest, but don’t get too focused on the head if there’s nothing obvious standing out.
10. Tail Direction & Length
Another thing to check is the tail length and the tail direction.
Some birds can be readily identified by having very distinctive tails, and this is something that stands out from a pretty good distance.
Wrens for example, are small ground birds with short tails that tend to stick up at a notably sharp angle.
Some birds have tails shorter than the length of their body, and other birds have tails that are comparatively quite long.
As you spend a bit of time studying bird tails, this pattern will start to become quite obvious within the first moments of sighting a new bird.
There is an average tail length for birds, but some birds fall quite far outside this normal range, so it’s a great thing to notice!
11. Don’t Get Fixated On Small Details
The main thing to bear in mind as you’re studying ID features like beaks, heads & tails is don’t get too focused on spotting tiny details.
If you do notice a really obvious red head, or a stubby tail sticking up at that sharp angle, these are certainly great things to notice.
However keep in mind – observing these characteristics while useful, doesn’t always solve the mystery as conclusively as you might think.
A huge amount of the confusion folks encounter with bird identification is when they see a little field marking, and think that one tiny detail will be enough to confidently identify the bird.
This is very often not the case.
Instead, we need to continue expanding our perspective to combine the little details with what we know about the big picture.
Always remember the first few points of this list – Slow down, watch and listen carefully, try to get closer and see birds from multiple angles before making too many judgements.
12. Practice Sketching Birds At Home
You might have noticed that when you get outside to look at birds, things tend to happen very fast.
It’s amazing how easy it is to miss an obvious crest or sticking up tail when you actually get into the field.
This is partially because birds move quickly, but it’s also that your eyes have never practiced looking for these things at real-time speed.
So why not train your visual ID skills before going outside?
With sketching, you can prime your brain to see the key bird identification characteristics much faster because you already have familiarity.
This is something you can do quite easily at home with a field guide and sketching paper.
It’s great for those cold rainy days when there isn’t much going on outside, or when you’re unable to go birding, but you still want to grow your ID skills.
Simply pick one bird to focus on and practice sketching things like the overall shape, beak, crown, color markings, etc.
Even if you aren’t a skilled artist, there is great value to sketching birds because it engages your eyes to study the images in your field guide more carefully.
The point here is not to sketch a perfect bird, but rather to study birds in greater depth than you otherwise would.
13. Use Your Eyes AND Ears
If you’re currently trying to identify birds without listening to their calls & sounds, you’re missing out on a HUGE opportunity to increase your confidence, accuracy, speed, and how far away you can recognize birds.
Many people have limiting beliefs around their sense of hearing and being able to identify birds by sound.
So if you’re reading this and thinking “there’s no way I could ever learn to identify birds by sound”, I want to assure you that you already have the skills to do this.
Think about your closest friends & family (the people who you spend all your free time with).
Now imagine one of these people called you from an unknown phone and said “Hey it’s me! Can you guess who this is?”
Would be able to recognize their voice? Of course you would because their voice is so familiar to you!
Now I want you to realize that if you can recognize an individual human by their voice, then you can also identify birds by sound.
These are basically the same skill just applied in two different ways.
So here are some key steps you can follow to learn birds by ear:
- Pick one bird that you know is extremely common near you
- Find recordings of all their songs and calls.
- Listen to those recordings on repeat until you get them stuck in your head like a favorite song.
- Go outside and spend time listening to that bird in it’s natural habitat.
Repeat these 4 steps enough times and you’ll be amazed at how many birds you learn to recognize by sound alone!
The key is to really saturate your ears with the sounds of one individual species until you have it locked in before moving on to another type.
If you’re in North America and you’re not sure which bird to start with, I would recommend you learn the calls & songs of the American Robin.
14. Comparing Male VS Female Birds
As you get more advanced with your bird identification skills, it’s important to realize there are always deeper levels of identification.
An excellent way to push your ID skills even beyond the basics is by looking for differences in males VS females.
In some bird species, these differences are quite subtle.
For example with robins & juncos, the main difference is that males are just a deeper shade, looking a bit darker than females.
However, many birds do have very obvious differences between males and females, sometimes having completely different plumage.
You might even look at a male & female side by side and think they’re two different species.
Obviously, this “sexual dimorphism” can create unnecessary confusion if you don’t know what to look for so it’s a good idea to get skilled at sorting out males and females.
15. Study Bird Behavior
It’s useful to know that physical appearance is not the only thing that helps us tell birds apart.
If you watch carefully, you’ll notice that every species of bird has it’s own unique way of interacting with the environment that can be observed and understood.
Sometimes behavior can even tell you the exact species of a bird without any other identifiable details to go on.
This comes in handy because it’s another tool in your pocket to help you identify birds faster & with greater accuracy/confidence.
If identification is all about knowing who that bird is… then behavior is all about knowing what that bird is doing.
What is that bird doing?
This is a useful question to ask because it helps us study birds more carefully, thereby increasing the activation of our senses.
This includes studying what birds eat & their particular strategy for finding food, also nest locations & behaviors surrounding the nesting process, courtship & flocking/social habits.
Behavior is often considered a more advanced skill than identification but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t start exploring bird behavior right from the start of your journey.
People who know how to make sense of bird behavior are simply better at identification skills in general, so here’s another article I wrote to help you get started with bird behavior.
16. Pay Attention To Habitat
If you want to get to the highest level of bird ID skills, then you need to expand your awareness beyond just looking at birds.
Imagine if you could make it 10x easier to identify birds just by looking at what kinds of trees & plants are growing nearby…
This is a great advantage that comes from taking time to study different bird habitats.
Most bird field guides will include habitat features in the descriptions. This is incredibly useful stuff to help predict which birds are most likely in your local area:
- Some birds live exclusively in the deep forest.
- Some birds live in open fields or grasslands.
- Others depend on the high diversity edges between field & forest.
- And others still are entirely correlated with the edges surrounding water.
Once you know how to look at the landscape through the lens of habitat, this really can play a large role towards aiding your identification of birds.
This is another reason why experienced naturalists seem to have an almost magical ability to identify birds from long distances with just a brief flicker of a wing.
It’s not just that they’re directly seeing the bird and recognizing it.
It’s also the entire ecology of nature surrounding that bird, gives naturalists extra predictive context that non-naturalists don’t have.
Habitat is something we can always be studying in nature because even when the birds are hiding, habitat is always right out in the open for anyone to see.
17. Get Outside With Other Bird Lovers
One of the best ways to speed up your bird learning curve is to spend time with other people who already have the skills you want to develop.
There’s just no replacement for the mentoring & osmosis of attitudes, awareness & perspective that comes from having a real live person to show you what they know.
And the great news here is that bird watching truly is a huge hobby for multiple millions of people all around the world.
Literally every city (and even small towns) will have knowledgeable bird watching groups you can meet up with to go check things out.
These are great local opportunities to meet friendly people who will gladly share what they know about local hotspots and bird species.
18. Setup A Bird Feeder
If you have a backyard or a balcony at home, another great idea is to set up a bird feeding station to attract birds closer.
This will give you more opportunities to watch a greater variety of birds for longer periods of time.
It all adds up to better observation & identification skills because you get to practice engaging your eyes & ears right from your own home.
Just be aware that sometimes bird feeders can spread disease during the warm season, so please be sensitive to the health needs of your local birds.
You might need to take down your bird feeders during the warm & humid season when there’s already plenty of food for them to forage.
Follow the recommendations of local bird feeding experts so we can keep our local populations healthy!
19. Use Field Guides Appropriately
One thing that remains true with bird identification is eventually you will need to flip through a field guide and try to find the names of birds.
However, it’s important to realize that while field guides are certainly quite useful, they’re not as all-important as some people try to make them.
Watching birds in real life is still quite different from seeing them in a book, so don’t expect a field guide to instantly solve all your identification questions.
Things like distance, angle, posture, season & light conditions can all dramatically impact how a bird looks in real life.
So rather than trying to find the exact bird matching what you saw, think of your field guide as an opportunity to begin exploring some possibilities.
Rather than looking for that one bird that matches, start by making a list of several birds from your guide that are somewhat in the right ballpark.
Typically you’ll need to consult the field guide, then go back outside to look again, and repeat as many times as necessary to really confirm what you’re seeing.
20. Check eBird.org For Local Species Lists
Another little trick that can really speed things up is using online data about actual recorded bird activity in your area.
eBird.org is a website that enables bird watchers around the world to record their confirmed observations on an interactive species map.
This is a great way to find out exactly what birds are actually being seen by other people in your neighborhood, which can really save a lot of time.
Go to eBird hotspots and check for local hotspots close to your favorite birdwatching locations.
This enables you to start from a curated list of birds that have actually been confirmed in your area by experienced bird watchers.
21. Keep Going!
Do you know the MOST important thing that determines who really gets skilled at bird identification?
It’s the people who practice!
Whether you’re a beginner getting started, or if you’re looking to improve your knowledge of birds beyond the intermediate levels, the most important thing is to keep practicing.
If you simply get outside and playfully apply all 21 tips shared here, you will amaze yourself and others as you start to identify birds at lightning speed, even in sub-optimal conditions.
The great thing is more practice brings more enjoyment from each moment you spend connecting with birds…
So keep going, keep it fun & stay sharp out there!