The Beginner’s Guide To Identifying Birds

Identifying a specific species among the nearly 10,000 different kinds of birds there are flying around the world can be a daunting task, even for those of us who have spent a large portion of our life trying to do just that.

Don’t worry – you don’t need to memorize all 10,000 species. In fact, I encourage beginners to start in their own backyard. In my opinion, it’s where my best birding has taken place. It’s where I learned many of the skills I depend on to become a master bird photographer.

Black Skimmer Rynchops niger Photo by Scott Bourne
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger Photo by Scott Bourne

There are five simple steps to identifying a bird. Concentrate on memorizing these – not the bird species itself, and you’ll become an expert in no time.

1. Shape & Size

If you close your eyes and think about it, does the shape of a bald eagle differ from that of an American crow? Of course. Is a sandhill crane larger than a northern cardinal? Yep.
So start there. What is the overall shape of the bird? Is it short and stocky or long and sleek? Then look at size. Is it bigger than a sparrow? How about a cardinal? How about a hawk?

This information will get you to the right pages in your field guide and that will help you drill down to find the exact species.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) Photo Copyright Scott Bourne
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) Photo Copyright Scott Bourne

2. Color & Markings

Almost all birds have a dominant color. A red-winged blackbird (male) does indeed have a flash of red on its wings, but it’s predominantly black. Whether it’s black, brown, red, blue, yellow or green, note the overall color of the bird and then look for markings or patterns such as streaks across the breast or a flash of color that shows only when the bird is in flight.

3. Location

This one is simple. For those of you in the USA – what state do you live in? What part of the state? Any field guide worth its salt will have region guides. If you see a certain type of bird, it will be easier to rule out (or in) certain birds just because of where you live. Here’s an example. If you are a US resident and do NOT live in Alaska, you don’t have to worry about the bird you are looking at being a Willow Ptarmigan. They are only found in the USA in Alaska.

4. Habitat

This is closely tied to location but goes deeper. Where did you see the bird? Freshwater or saltwater nearby? Grassy meadows or shallow marshes? These habitat distinctions can help to lead to a solid bird identification.

Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway) photo by Scott Bourne
Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway) photo by Scott Bourne

5. Behavior

How does the bird search for food or move its tail? What else does the bird do that distinguishes it? For instance, a killdeer will pretend to be injured to lure prey away from its nest. No other plover does that. Certain nuthatches are the only birds to explore trees going down head first. The more of these behaviors you notice, the easier it is to figure out what bird you are looking at.


If you get stuck, the free Merlin Bird ID App can help. You can take a picture of a bird, and use it to help identify the bird. The app isn’t foolproof, but it’s right about 95% of the time if you add the correct location and date information to the photo.


Practice identifying common birds in your area using the aforementioned criteria. Pretty soon, it becomes second nature and then you can expand these tools to other less familiar birds and birding habitats.

Learn Birding

Scott Bourne View All →

Scott Bourne is an Olympus Visionary, a professional bird/wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He is a pioneer in digital photography and was named one of the “30 most influential photographers on the Web” by Huffington Post. His photographic experience spans four decades and his bird/wildlife images have been published in more than 200 magazines and periodicals. He is also a Signed Master at Studio of Masters in China.

Scott has been a founder, co-founder, advisor or early stage investor in several technology companies such as NetRadio, Photofocus, and ViewBug.

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