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Identifying Birds

Question: I'm a new birdwatcher, and sometimes I see birds that I can't find in my bird book. Are there some birds that aren't any particular kind? Why can't I find them?
--Gary G., Kerrville, TX

Is this bird really in the book?

It should be.

A good bird book (also called a field guide) includes all the species in the area it covers. If you're using a field guide titled something like "Favorite Birds of XYZ," it's not complete. It's someone's selection of the birds the author thinks you might encounter, but it's left out a whole bunch. You'll never know whether the bird you're looking for is in the book or not.

National Geographic GuideThere are plenty of complete field guides. In North America, some are for the eastern half of the country and some are for the west. For residents in the middle (say Kansas), you might be better off with a book that covers the whole continent, such as the National Geographic Field Guide. If you haven't already got a good field guide, what are you waiting for?

Here's an display of the best North American field guides.

This bird is not in the book!

OK, you've got a complete field guide. But sometimes you could swear the bird you just saw is absolutely not in the book!

The truth it, it probably is in the book. (There are few actual exceptions*.) Every wild bird is represented in the field guide. It just might not look exactly like the picture in the book.

Why you haven't found it yet

Here are some reasons why your bird doesn't look like any of the pictures:

  • Bald EagleIt's young, like the immature bald eagle at right, and perhaps its plumage is not shown in the book you're using. Some books show more variations in plumage than others. If you have a book with only one or two pictures per species, it may not include what immature birds look like.
  • GoldfinchIt's moulting, which means some of its feathers are missing, or the color pattern is goofed up. (Molting American goldfiches have a patchwork appearance of gold and grey that can really fool you.)
  • It's backlit. Is the sun behind your bird? Strong back lighting can wipe out a bird's color.
  • House FinchesIt's a normal variation. There's a lot of normal variation in some bird species. Male house finches, like the two shown at right, range from red, through orange, to occasionally yellow. Most field guides don't have room for all the variations.
  • It's de-tailed. Perhaps it's lost its tail to a cat, hopelessly confusing its silhouette.
  • It's wet. Did your bird just step out of the birdbath or stream? If so, it's not going to look like its portrait in the book.
  • It's an albino. If so, it may have white feathers where you would expect it to be red, black, or another strong color. Albinos occur in most species, but most people see them very rarely. (I've seen albinos among robins, barn swallows, horned larks, and cardinals.)
  • It's partly in shadow. For example, a bird sitting on an overhead wire at sundown may have a shadow of the wire on its tail that looks like a dark band.

Any of these conditions, and many others, will complicate the puzzle delightfully. But identification is a puzzle that birders love to solve.

Birds do it. So can we.

Birds can recognize their own species. And somehow birders learn to recognize them too, even when the birds look a little strange. Birders do it using the same clues that the birds go by.

Birders gradually get familiar with species, so that they recognize by a whole cluster of characteristics (or field marks). They learn not to be misled by the particular, accidental, temporary aspects of the individual bird in question.

  • House WrenShape - Look at the overall shape of the bird. A house wren is immediately recognizable by its tail, which often points straight up. Remember to look at the length and shape of the bill.
  • Size - Compare the bird to known birds, especially if they're in view at the same time and at the same distance.
  • Pattern - Wing bars, eyebrow stripe, breast spots, bands of light and dark on the tail, etc. Your field guide will tip you off as to what are the significant field marks to look for with each species.
  • Song - You can see more birds with your ears than you can with your eyes. Get yourself some bird song CDs. We especially love the Birding By Ear series.
  • White-breasted NuthatchBehavior - Birds give away their identities by their characteristic actions. If it looks like a miniature woodpecker, but it's walking head first down the tree, it's a nuthatch.
  • Color - It's the first thing a beginner looks for. But don't let color distract you from looking for the other points on this list.

It takes a while to be able to name the birds around you. There is no failure in birding, because every birding experience increases your knowledge.

There's no hurry. It's not a competition (though you can make it one if you like). Birding is something we do for fun, to enrich our daily experience. To become more aware of the beautiful, mysterious nature of which we are a part. To be more awake, more alive, more conscious.

Good birding!

Copyright 2007 Diane Porter
Bird pictures copyright 1999-2007 Michael and Diane Porter

All the birds should be in the book. Here are some exceptions:

  • Hybrids. A hybrid's mother and father are not the same species, and so the hybrid belongs to two species instead of one. Hybrids are fairly common among waterfowl, especially in artificial lakes and city parks. Hybrids occur (rarely) among warblers and a few other families of birds. Hybrids that occur most regularly are recognizable, and they are described in more complete field guides.
  • Exotics and escapes. Birds that have escaped from captivity sometimes live on their own in the wild for a long time. The most common escapes include parrots and waterfowl.
  • Birds expanding their range. Shiny cowbirds, Eurasian collared doves, and other birds have been moving into new areas. A field guide that is a few years old may not have current data on where the bird is now found.





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