Bird watching 101

A very brief introduction to bird watching, complete with a quiz!

I love learning new things. So, when I was out hiking one day, I decided I wanted to start identifying birds and trees and flowers and EVERYTHING! This summer, Andrew bought me field guides for birds, trees, and a wildflowers. I started with the birds.

After leafing through the fantastic bird pictures and reading up on the few birds I could already identify by sight, (robin, blue jay, cardinal, sparrow), I set to work identifying new birds that I saw. I’d see a bird during a hike and say “wow, it’s too far away, I won’t be able to identify it.” Or “It had a brown back and a white belly.” There are only about 100,000 birds in North America with that description. Things weren’t going so well.

Then I read the part of the bird book without pictures and learned how to actually identify a bird. Color and markings are only a small part, and can actually be very misleading if you see a young bird that does not have its adult colors or if the bird has changed its feathers for season.

So here are what I’ve learned tips, followed by an example of a bird I ID’d today. I am by no means a bird expert (yet), and I’m sure there are others who have done it better. Intros to many birdwatching books are a great place to start too.

  1. Behavior: What is the bird doing? Is it sitting in a tree, pecking at the ground, swimming, flying? Is the bird in a flock or alone? If it’s in a tree, is it pecking at the bark? Is it moving along the tree trunk or sitting on a branch?
  2. What ecosystem is the bird in? Is this bird in the forest, a meadow, a lake, the ocean, or my suburban front yard? Birds typically only live in certain areas where they will find their favored foods.
  3. What does the bird look like? What size is it? Is it tiny, like a sparrow? About the size of a robin? As large as a crow? With practice, you will get better at identifying the overall shape of a bird. Once you know the broad families of birds, then your search is much simpler! What field marks does it have? Color is not the only important thing here. What type & color of bill does it have? What shape is the tail? Does it have any distinctive coloring, like an eye ring, wing bars, or a crest on its head?

Use your field guide or a website to narrow down the possibilities. Use your observations to guide your thought process.

And now for the example, complete with picture. I plan on posting pictures and the identification process to both help me and new bird-watchers. This is an easy one: I saw this guy on my new suet bird feeder.

Bird #1

A black and white bird, maybe the size of a robin, was clinging to the suet feeder, pecking through the grate . The bird was all black and white. Observed in December in Ohio.


First off, this is a woodpecker. It’s on the small size for a woodpecker, but it still has the same general shape, perches on the face of something, and uses its tail to balance itself against whatever it is perched on. Many woodpeckers also have this black and white speckling.

Looking at the woodpecker pages in my bird book, that narrows the choices down a lot. Since it is black and white, that brings us to:

  • the black-backed woodpecker (long beak, all black on the head and back with speckled underside, about 9″)
  • three-toed woodpecker (long beak, all black head, white underside, about 9″)
  • red-cockaded woodpecker (long beak, black and white speckled back, black and white head, white underside, 8″) this guy looks pretty close
  • downy woodpecker (black and white speckled wings, black and white masked face, white underside, short beak, 6″)

How to decide if it’s a red-cockaded or a downy woodpecker:

  1. Size. The downy woodpecker is much smaller and closer in size to the bird in the picture.
  2. Beak. The red-cockaded has a much longer beak than the mystery bird
  3. Face pattern (field markings). The red-cockaded woodpecker has a patch of white on its face. The downy woodpecker has a black band across its eye with a white stripe above and below it.
  4. Looking at the bird information, the downy woodpecker is a common bird found all across the US, and the entry even says they are frequently found at suet feeders in suburban yards. The red-cockaded woodpecker is endangered and found only in the southeastern US in mature pine woods.
  5. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but this bird has speckled wings and a black back. The red-cockaded woodpecker has white speckles all over.

So, we have identified the downy woodpecker! Hopefully the birds will be a bit more challenging in the future.



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