Bird watching should be easy – just point your eyes at a bird and ‘Bob’s your uncle’, right? Well, yes and no. That’s a good way to start, but if you want to get to know your birds even a little, it’s better to take a systematic approach. Knowing how to watch birds and gather identification information will make your birding experiences much more rewarding.
What I’m about to show you may look challenging at first, but don’t be discouraged. Developing a system for observing birds is no more difficult than creating any other routine. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.
Where to Start
If you’re new to bird watching, start with backyard birds. You can bring the birds to you with attractive feeders and plantings. Common garden birds like sparrows, jays and finches will be somewhat accustomed to being around people so your presence and quiet conversation shouldn’t scare them away.
If you’re already quite familiar with these birds and want to expand your knowledge, consider joining a bird club outing or taking a guided tour of local birding hotspots.
General Bird Watching Tips
Whether out in the wild or in your own backyard, be as still and quiet as possible so you don’t startle the birds away or make them fearful of you. Sit or stand somewhere comfortable and let yourself become part of the landscape. Birds will get used to your presence and display a wider range of behaviors when they don’t feel threatened.
Avoid wearing white or bright, unnatural colors – if you stand out too much birds will avoid you.
No matter where you are, always avoiding pestering the birds by getting too close, playing loud recorded sounds or disturbing nests. Be considerate of other birders and of the environment you’re in. Be sure to stay on any established trails to avoid damaging the area’s ecosystem and also for your own safety.
Prime Yourself for Success
Learn the parts of a bird body and their names. Your bird book, field guide, or special birders’ field notebook if you have one, will include a diagram of bird parts, or you can download this one (right-click and ‘save image as’). Why bother memorizing? So you can describe them accurately and fast, of course.
Work with your field guide to get a feel for the general shape, size and beaks of different groups of birds. (See How to Use a Bird Identification Field Guide.)
Pay particular attention to notes on behaviors that are unique to a certain group of birds. For example, only a few kinds of birds feed on tree trunks, so any bird doing so must be either a creeper, a nuthatch or a woodpecker. Knowing this kind of information will help you make short work of identification.
Birds are highly specialized for certain kinds of food and environments, and those that migrate do so by predictable routes and time. This means that they are predictably found in specific places at specific times, which is a really solid clue for identification (or exclusion.) Your field guide will show you where a bird is normally found at different times of year.
Birding checklists are handy not only for keeping track of your sightings, but also for finding out what birds you’re likely to see in your area. The American Bird Association, National Audubon Society and many wildlife departments and organizations offer checklists. You can also get Avibase’s Bird Checklists of the World in downloadable PDFs here. (Click on the plus sign beside each region for a list of areas to choose from.)
Write It Down
“Not having a clear idea of what to focus on can result in an observation that yields no useful information.”
– David Allen Sibley, Sibley’s Birding Basics
Sketching and jotting down what you see while a bird is handy will serve you much better than grabbing you bird guide and flipping through it. It will not only force you to be a keen observer, but will help you retain what you learn and speed up your learning process. Even crude sketches can be valuable, and you will get better with practice, I promise.
Even if you don’t think you need to do this to identify birds, your notes can become keepsakes and memory touchstones for the future. It’s even possible that they could help scientists who study natural history some day: James Eike was a non-scientist bird watcher who kept daily notes over 30 years. His collection of 80 notebooks is now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and is considered quite valuable! (Read more about that here.)
Your notebook can be a simple spiral bound pocket pad, a hardback lined journal or even a book of waterproof pages made especially for birders.
Here’s what to include in your notes:
- Date, time and exact place.
- Weather and conditions.
- What kind of habitat you are in.
- What the bird is eating (if you can see).
- Where it is looking for food. (On the wing, on a tree trunk, on the ground.)
- What kinds of sounds it is making.
- Whether it’s alone or with other birds.
- Any unusual behaviors you may notice. Towhees, for example, scratch the ground with both feet at the same time, jumping forward and then jumping backward with the claws of both feet scraping the earth.
- Details of the birds appearance (see next section)
- A sketch including markings and postures.
Practice on your garden birds so that when something unusual comes along you can scribble at top speed to capture all the details.
Keep a SONG in Your Heart
“You see, but you do not observe.”
-Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, 1892, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
There are four keys to bird identification, which I like to think of as a SONG:
S – Size and shape
O – Observe prominent colors and marking
N – Notice the place and environment or habitat
G – Get the behavior on paper
Size and Shape
How big is the bird compared to other birds you know? (It’s notoriously hard to make an accurate estimate of how long a bird is, so compare it to familiar birds or other birds nearby.) Is it bigger than a robin, or smaller than a sparrow?
Consider that in cold weather (or when feeling aggressive) a bird will fluff its feathers out and appear much rounder and fatter. Herons and other birds with long necks sometimes have their heads pulled down close to their bodies, which makes them look quite different.
Can you describe or sketch the bird’s bill shape and length, wing shape and leg length, especially relative to other parts of the bird? For example, you might note that the wings of a flying bird are about twice as long as they are deep, or that a bird’s bill is half the length of its head.
How is the tail shaped? Is it fanned or held closed in flight? Does it tip up or down?
Does it have a crest, extra-long tail feathers or other standout features? For example, the Blue Footed Booby has brilliant turquoise legs and feet. You can’t miss them! (Don’t laugh, this Galapagos bird and its brown-footed cousin have occasionally been sighted as far north as Vancouver Island, on Canada’s west coast.)
Observe Prominent Colors
Make a point of developing an orderly method for looking at the bird’s colors and markings, for example: crest (head), chin, throat, breast, belly, back, and tail. What color are these parts?
Does it have any prominent markings, like spots, wingbars or a bi-color tail?
Can you make a quick sketch of the bird’s facial markings? What color(s) are they? What color is its beak?
What does the beak look like – long and thin, curved, short/thick, even crossed?
Notice the Place and Habitat
Where did you see it? Note the exact place (with GPS coordinates for uber-geeks.)
What is the environment like – desert? Forest? Urban? City? Shoreline (river or ocean)? Do you recognize any of the natural trees and plants you see? If so, write them down and try to estimate how dominant the major ones are. For example, “Mature conifer forest, 50% Douglas Fir.” (But don’t stress if you don’t happen to know that kind of thing.)
Get the behavior on paper
What is the bird doing – foraging, bathing, feeding young, carrying nest materials, grooming? Where and how is it looking for food?
What is its stance and posture? Can you sketch it?
Does the bird hold its head high or low? Tail up or down? Does it flick its tail?
Does it feed or perch in an upright position or does it hang upsidedown?
What kinds of sounds is it making? If words come to mind, like “chicka-dee-dee-dee”, write them down. Maybe it sounds like a toy rubber ducky or perhaps a truck or forklift in reverse (both terms have been used to describe nuthatch vocalizations.)
Think you know a bird well? Challenge yourself to identify it from further away; from its calls and song, or while in flight. Kudos to you if you can do it!
There’s more to bird watching than “point and blink.” When it comes to birds, the closer you look the more you’ll see. The more you see, the more your sense of wonder will grow. And it all comes from knowing how to watch birds.
What outstanding bird features have you seen that really made an impression on you?
Top Image photo by Wayne Crenshaw