When I first discovered birdwatching and became obsessed with how to identify birds, almost every sighting was like a little “ooh and ahh” miracle – observing NYC pigeons was as fascinating to me as spotting a Pileated Woodpecker whacking at a dead tree.

Some of these birds were easily identified and I took great satisfaction in being able to name them during my observations.

How to identify birds.  You can observe birds - like this woodpecker climbing up a tree - and take note of its size, shape, and colors.

However, for each of the birds I was unfamiliar with I quickly discovered that identifying them was not as easy as I had imagined.

I would take note of the bird’s size, color, and location (“small bird, brownish with some grayish tones, in a park ”) look in my field guide, and immediately be overwhelmed by all of the birds who matched that description.

Three different small birds that look similar due to their size and coloring - a new birder may have trouble identifying birds that look similar to one another.

Then I would look up from my guide to find the bird again, and it would be gone!

Strategies for Identifying birds

As a new birdwatcher, my inability to identify birds drove me crazy, until I figured out a system that increased my success rate for how to identify birds exponentially. Here is the method I use:

Purchase a pair of binoculars

Binoculars will allow you to view birds up close, and viewing them up close will make them a lot easier to identify.

(Make sure that you check out our top 4 recommendations for the best binoculars for eyeglass wearers.)

Purchase a field guide for your area

A field guide is obviously key to your successful identification of birds. One that is specific to your area (be it state or region, depending on where you live) is also important since it will only show photos of the birds that you have access to.

When you are learning how to identify birds, you won’t waste time thumbing through photographs of birds from Wisconsin if you live in eastern North Carolina.

In addition, a smaller field guide specific to your area is easier to carry and to quickly thumb through.

Bookcovers of 4 field guides for United States.  Field guides will help you identify birds.

Become Familiar with your field guide prior to bird watching

To make the most of your field guide, spend some time with it before taking it out into the field. It’s actually fun to thumb through the photographs and read about the different birds in your area. You will probably recognize a few of the birds you have already casually spotted.

Take note of the way the birds are described and the way the field guide is structured and organized (size, shape, color patterns, etc).

Also, take note of the more common birds that are listed so that you can look for them when bird-watching.

Search the web to identify the birds that others have found in your area

By reading about the birds that locals have spotted, you will be primed to look out for them. Once you know what you are looking for, it’s a lot easier.

It’s not that different from pattern-matching cereal boxes in the grocery aisle – the Captain Crunch box is bright red with a blue captain. In the mood for Cheerios? Look for a bright yellow box with a red heart.

Bright yellow Western Tanager with orange head perching on branch top.  Birds with distinctive colors are easier to identify.

Start practicing bird identification

Though it’s a good place to start, how to identify birds is not always as simple as pattern matching when looking for breakfast cereal. For example, there are tons of small and slender brownish birds out there, and they also tend to flit around very quickly.

Attributes you should note

Following are the attributes you should be noting when you want to identify a bird. I suggest practicing the identification of these attributes in two ways:

  • In the field, for a bird you are familiar with. For example, if you have cardinals that visit your backyard garden, study their attributes and write them down.
  • On a bird that is photographed in your field guide. This is a great practice since you can do it any time of day or night, indoors or outdoors.

Start with the obvious

Though I am presenting several attributes to look out for, don’t get overwhelmed by this list!

Start by identifying the things that really stick out – for example, in the example of a cardinal, a bright red overall color, a fluffy crest at the top of the head, a red beak, a tail that sticks up at a slight angle, a black pattern around the beak.

Close up of bright red male Northern Cardinal on branch.  His bright red feathers and distinctive song makes him easier to identify.

If you have time, delve a little deeper to make additional notes.


The first thing to note in the “how to identify birds” process, is where the bird is located: is it a water bird or is it perched on a tree limb?

Size and Shape

Let’s make this simple and break size down into 5 categories: very small, small, medium, large, and super-large. What small means to me may be a bit different in how you define it, which is fine. Just use a scale that works for you.

For example, for me, this is how I think about the categories, and some of the birds that are local to my area:

  • Very small (3-5 in): Carolina Chickadee, Winter Wren, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Goldfinch
  • Small (5-9 in): Song Sparrow, Tufted Titmouse, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Pine Warbler, Cardinal
  • Medium (9-16 in): Blue Jay, Killdeer, Rock Pigeon, American Robbin, Mourning Dove, Gray Catbird
  • Large (16-32 in): Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Green Heron, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker
  • Very Large (32-72 in): Double-crested Cormorant, Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Heron

The height and heft of the bird will also influence your perception of its size. Depending on how the bird is positioning itself, your perception of its height and its heft can change as it shifts its position so have a look for a while.

Leg shape and size
Does the bird have long skinny legs, like a heron, or does it have short legs, like a Tufted Titmouse?

Gray Heron standing in shallow water.  When you try to identify a bird, take note of its leg shape and length - this Gray Heron has long stick-like legs.

Bill (beak) shape and size
Some birds have long skinny beaks, like the Long-billed Curlew, while others have beaks that are much closer to the face, like a Cardinal.

Head crest and crown
Some birds have distinctive shapes at the tops of their heads. For example, a cardinal has a very obvious crest.

Tail shape and size
Is the tail relatively long, like a Northern Mockingbird, or is it short, like a brown-headed cowbird?

As for shape, the tail may be fan-shaped, forked, notched, pointed, rounded, squared, or in a category all its own. Don’t worry too much about the exact shape – just try noting anything that stands out.

For example, an American Kestral and a Golden Eagle both have an obvious fan shape to their tails. In contrast, the shape of the Western Screech-Owls tail is squared off.

Color and Marking Patterns

Birds have many different types of colors and markings. Some birds have an overall or even uniform color. Others may have subtle secondary and tertiary colors. There are tropical birds that display an amazing array of colors across the rainbow.

As for markings, think of these as colored geometric patterns such as distinctive spots, rings, and stripes. Some patterns may be simple and subtle, and some may be more complex and quite striking.

Northern Flicker standing on fence edge.  Its distinctive markings make it easier to spot and name.

Overall color and markings
What is the dominant color of the bird? Is the bird uniform in color, or does it have markings? If there are markings, where are they located and what do they look like, and what color are they?

Head color and markings
The head color and markings may be quite different from the bird’s overall color.

Wings color and markings
Like the head color, the wing color and markings may have distinct colors and patterns

Breast color and markings
The color of the breast may vary from the overall color

Tail color and markings
The color of the tail may be distinctive as well

Posture and Movement
Birds may hold and move their tails in different ways. For example, some birds hold their tails up from their bodies while others hold their tails down. Some birds may also move their tails a lot.


What is the bird doing? Is it scooting vertically up a tree, pecking on the wood (10 points if you can identify this bird!), or is it walking stealthily along the water’s edge while gazing intensely into the water? Is it alone or is it amongst a flock of birds?

Seasonal appearance

Different birds will appear at different times of the year so take note of the season.


Identifying a bird by its sound may be a bit too sophisticated for the novice birder. However, if your bird is making an interesting sound, you may want to write that down (phonetically, as in “Wha-Cheer! Wha-Cheer!” which is one of the sounds a Cardinal makes) since you might want to refer back to that later.

Once in the field, select a bird to identify

Now that you have purchased and read through your guide, and practiced bird identification, its time to put your knowledge into practice. Bring your field guide outside, along with paper and pencil, start birdwatching, and select a bird to identify.

At first, you may want to select a bird that is a bit distinctive – or perhaps one you know is more common – so you will have an easier time identifying it.

When you zero on in your selected bird, write down its attributes, just as you did during practice. Observe it for a while, since its perceived size and shape may change as it changes its position.

If you have a camera with you, you may also want to photograph it so you can refer back to the photograph later on.

Woman photographing bird on water's edge.

Look for the bird in your field guide

Your field guide should be quite familiar to you by now. Using your notes, search for your bird.

As you go through your guide, remember that some birds have many of the same features. Therefore, even if you think you have identified your bird, look at the remaining birds in the guide that have some of the same features just to make sure.

Write the bird sighting down

Write down the name of the bird, the date and time you saw him, as well as the bird’s location. It’s fun to keep a record, and you can try visiting the same location, at the same time of day, if you want to spot the bird again.

For fun, share your sighting on a local bird-watching site

It’s always fun to share bird sightings! If there is a bird-watching forum in your area, for example, join the forum and record your sighting.

Start learning about the bird you have identified

Now that you have identified your first bird, and possibly shared your sighting online, start learning about the bird. This will make your sighting of the bird so much more meaningful.

The bird and its behaviors will soon become fascinating to you, and you will be able to solidify your knowledge about the birds so that you can quickly spot it without referring to your guide.

Get a bird feeder

Sparrows feeding at bird feeder. Observing birds at a feeder is a great way to study them so you can learn how to spot them.
Observe birds at the feeder to practice identifying them

This is a great way to study birds! If you set the feeder up in a spot that is adjacent to a sitting area (like near a garden bench, or outside your kitchen window) you can comfortably sit and observe birds for hours on end.

On your next birdwatching adventure, try to find the bird(s) you last identified

Keep doing this to practice your bird identification skills. It’s also immensely satisfying to be able to quickly ID a bird that only a day or week before you knew nothing about.

Final Words on How To Identify Birds

In summary, a great system for identifying birds starts with purchasing a field guide for birds in your area and familiarizing yourself with it. Follow this by practicing bird identification, noting attributes of birds you are familiar with, or by using photographs in your field guide.

Once you are well-practiced, try identifying a common or distinctive-looking bird in the field, using your bird attribute checklist and your field guide. Extra points for documenting the bird sighting, sharing on local birdwatching forums, and learning about the bird you have identified.

On your next birdwatching adventure, try spotting the same bird, this time without the guide! Finally, consider purchasing a bird-watching feeder, positioned near seating so that you can comfortably watch and identify birds at your leisure.