Birding for Beginners – How to Identify Birds

This is an introduction to Birding for Beginners showing you how to identify birds easily and quickly before they fly away from your view – and from your memory.

Trying to identify birds can be a very daunting task. Most people don’t even bother starting, because well, it just seems too difficult

I’m going to simplify it for you so that you can get out there and start spotting and identifying our beautiful birds with confidence

So let’s get started…

Equipment You Will Need

    • Binoculars

You will need an 8 x or 10x magnification., with a preferable field of view (fov) between 40 and 50. Eg. 8×42 or 10×50. Please look at a discussion I did on choosing the right pair of binoculars

    • Bird Book / Field Guide / Birding App incl. checklist

Your field guide can either be a physical one or a digital one, or like most of us, why don’t you use both. The Apps have checklists installed. Your book can be your checklist, where you write the date and place of first recording next to the bird. Make sure you get a field guide (digital and/or physical) that is for your area of interest and that you like the look and “feel” of.

A list of bird books for North America are listed below…. I suggest getting one for just your region to start off with, making it easier to carrry around with you and with fewer species to sort through as you get started.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern & Central North America, Seventh Edition

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region

If you’d like moe information on the best bird books for your country or region, then email me and I’ll see if I can help you out.

    • Notebook 

In the beginning it can be used to jot down distinguishing features while trying to identify a bird and later on used to record interesting behaviour you might have witnessed.

So that’s it. Simple and easy…Off you go!!

How to Identify Birds

For any birder, from beginner to ornithologist, when identifying a new bird these are the four main characteristics to look for.

Before we go any  further, remember to always look at the bird for as long as possible and make as many mental (or written notes) before resorting to your field guide.

Ok now we can start…..

    • General Size and Shape

This is a good place to start and becomes easier with experience, I promise you. Basically you need to ask yourself if it looks like a sparrow, and eagle or a duck. OK, OK so obviously it is a little more difficult than that.

Try to look at the following: –

        • Size – tiny, small, medium or large
        • Shape – plump, slender, compact
        • Shape as a silhouette, for eg. A waxbill, a robin, a roller, a woodpecker, a heron, a stork, a falcon or an eagle.
        • Bill  – size and shape (long, short, curved, slender, stout, robust)
        • Tail – length and shape (fanned, notched, rounded, square, forked)

It’s a good idea to page through your field guide even before you start trying to identify birds, just so you can get an idea of the different families of birds, their shapes and sizes.

It’s also a good idea to compare the bird you are looking at to other birds in your field of view to help gauge the size.

This is VERY difficult in the beginning, but don’t be discouraged. Once you get to know the different families, your sense of achievement will be immense and you’ll also wow your friends with your new found ability.

    • The Plumage

As one would expect, this is the first thing any person would see when looking at a bird.

There are however a myriad of different colours, stripes, bars and patterns to try and identify. But don’t stress. I’ll make it easier for you.

Some examples of where to look for colours: –

    • Eye
    • Bill/Beak
    • Legs
    • Breast
    • Crown
    • Eyebrow
    • Back & Rump
    • Tail
    • Wings
    • Belly
    • Habits & Behaviour

This is a very important observation to make. Often it is the deciding factor that separates 2 or more similar species. Although it’s difficult in the beginning also try and listen to it’s call, this can be an excellent clue and once you become more experienced, bird calls come in very handy.

Some examples of what to look for: –

      • Solitary /Pairs
      • Small Flocks / Large Flocks
      • Hawking insects from branches
      • Wing flutters
      • Feeds in open ground
      • Perches on tall trees
      • Song description
    • Habitat

Some birds have a wide range of habitats, others are generally refined to or seen to be situated in a specific area.

Some descriptions of habitats: –

      • Riverine forest
      • Coniferous forest
      • Wetlands
      • Short  grassland
      • Canopy of montane forest
      • Lowland forest
      • Shrubby outcrops
      • Stony sparse shrubland

Understand the different types of habitats to understand the types of birds you’ll find in the areas you are looking.

Below are 4 examples I’ve used to help you understand how to write down your findings. You can write down similar observations to help you.

Please not that these examples are of Southern African bird species.

Example 1: Pygmy Kingfisher

Pygmy KingFisher
By Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland – African pygmy-kingfisher (Ceyx pictus), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11461407
  • Size and Shape
    • Tiny; plump; long robust bill; stubby tail
  • Plumage
    • Bright orange bill and legs; purple ear; blue crown and most of back with an orange front
  • Habits & Behaviour
    • Solitary; perched on a low branch looking side to side
  • Habitat
    • Riverine forest on dry river bed, no water to be seen

Example 2: Orange-Breasted Bush Shrike

Orange-breasted Bush Shrike
By © Hans Hillewaert /, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11353548
  • Size and Shape
    • Small about 20cm; slender bird; puffy breast; short light bill with slight hook; long tail
  • Plumage
    • Dark eye; grey ear, nape and crest; yellow forehead and eyebrow;  orange breast
  • Habits & Behaviour
    • Solitary; flittering around tall tree
  • Habitat
    • Tall thorn tree – could be an acacia

Example 3: Martial Eagle

Martial Eagle
By Francesco Veronesi from Italy (Martial Eagle – Mara – Kenya_S4E7401) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Size and Shape
    • Large; eagle like
  • Plumage
    • Bright yellow eye; black head and neck; spotted breast and belly; black wings; feathers on legs; black crest
  • Habits & Behaviour
    • Solitary; perched on a tall tree before taking off and showing large wingspan
  • Habitat
    • Open area with a couple of tallish trees

Example 4: Shaft-Tailed Wydah

Shaft-tailed Whydah
By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE – Shaft-tailed Whydah (Vidua regia), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40780643
  • Size and Shape
    • Body is small like a sparrow; long tail with lobe like looking things at the end of it
  • Plumage
    • Pinkish bill; pale yellow front and nape; black head; pink legs
  • Habits & Behaviour
    • Solitary it seems; but flying around with lots of other dull looking little birds
  • Habitat
    • Small trees with some sparse grass around

Use these types of observations to help you get started.

Now get out there and go find some birds. If you have any questions please feel free to leave them in the comments in the section below.

Happy Birding!!!

Warm regards,

Matt

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