Stephen Moss：Identifying Birds in your Backyard & Garden
Why identify birds?
But isn't bird identification really difficult?
- Don’t panic!
- Take your time!
What do you already know?
What’s the context?
- LOCATION: where do you live? If you’re in the UK, it won’t be a hummingbird, a chickadee or a Cardinal – these species are only found in North America. Likewise, if you’re in the USA or Canada, it won’t be a European species like a Blue Tit, Song Thrush or Greenfinch.
- SEASON: what time of year is it? Some birds are resident all year round, while others are seasonal visitors, either seen during the spring and summer or autumn and winter. Getting to know which species appear at different times of year can help you quickly eliminate unseasonal birds.
- RARITY: rare birds are just that – rare! If you think a bird is a national or regional rarity – the kind that will attract hordes of birders peering through binoculars at your feeder – it’s almost certainly not!
Six steps to a successful ID
I’ve put together a six-step process which should help you identify all but the trickiest birds. For some species, one or more of these categories – for example, colour, size or an obvious field mark – will be more useful than others. But all of these will be useful at some stage.
Very Small (US: kinglets, chickadees, hummingbirds; UK: Goldcrest, Blue Tit, Chiffchaff)
Small (US: sparrows, finches, warblers; UK: sparrows, finches, Nuthatch, Robin, Great Tit, Blackcap)
Medium (US: Starling, Robin, thrushes, juncos, vireos, grackles, cowbirds, blackbirds, woodpeckers, orioles, Cardinal; UK: starling, thrushes, Great Spotted Woodpecker)
Large (US: doves, Blue Jay, crows; UK: pigeons, doves, Jay, crows, Ring-necked Parakeet)
Shape and Structure
Colour and Pattern
That’s where Bird Topography can be helpful. Basically, this refers to the different parts of a bird: broadly its head, wings, back, breast, belly, tail, bill and legs; and more specifically, areas such as its crown or nape (the top or back of the head).
Different birds also behave differently when visiting bird feeders, where there is usually a ‘pecking order’. Some species are dominant, staying on the feeder for several minutes at a time until they have eaten their fill; others are shy and nervous, flying in, grabbing a seed and then flying straight off again.
Larger birds like jays and woodpeckers tend to dominate the smaller ones, though some little birds – like Blue Tits in the UK and hummingbirds in the US – are surprisingly feisty for their size, often seeing off much larger birds!
What they mean by that is some kind of characteristic that meant it could only be that species. It’s rather like when you are walking along a street and you see someone approaching you at a distance. Well before you can see their face, or any other distinguishing features, you know it’s one of your close friends or family members. It might be something to do with their walk, or the way they hold their head or move their arms. But if you were asked how you knew who it was, you might simply say ‘I just knew’!
Talking of field guides, birders have used these – and been very thankful for them – ever since the US bird artist Roger Tory Peterson published his pioneering A Field Guide to the Birds (of North America) in 1934, following it up with A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, in 1954.
Same species, different appearance
Or perhaps you are used to seeing this bird during the breeding season, but now it has moulted into its (often drabber a less colourful) winter plumage. And in some species, like the Chaffinch in Europe and Cardinal in North America, males and females look very different from one another.
Different species, same or similar appearance
Sometimes, like the European Starling in North America or the Ring-necked Parakeet in the UK, they will form successful breeding populations, and become as common, widespread and familiar as our native birds. But often they will be a one-off, their unfamiliarity causing confusion to anyone who comes across one.
For example in North America, species from further south – Mexico and Central America – may venture much further north than usual, and turn up in the USA or Canada; indeed with climate change this is becoming more and more frequent.
You can also consider adding a Birdfy Feeder AI to your backyard or garden - every bird that visits your feeder will be directly identified and recorded, enabling you to enjoy a smart birdwatching experience!