Three swifts in flight, spain

How do I identify a bird?

There are a number of features that you will need to make a note of to help your identification.

Size

Estimate the size of the bird. It is often helpful to compare it with other species that you recognise alongside it, but if this is not possible, try to compare it with species you know well - is it the size of a robin, pigeon or gull for example. 

Remember that birds often look bigger in poor light. It can be very difficult to estimate the size of a bird in flight, so only compare it with other birds you see in the air with it.

Chaffinch

Shape

Does the bird remind you of any other species you are familiar with? What are your first impressions of the bird’s shape? The bill (the bird’s beak) and legs are an important part of the shape and you should pay special attention to these. 

The type of bill can often give you a clue to the group of birds your bird belongs to. A small bird with a short and stout bill will probably be a seed-eater such as a finch or a sparrow, whilst a large bird with a hooked bill would suggest a bird of prey. 

The length and colour of the legs, and if the feet have talons or are webbed are also important clues.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult female perched on heather, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay, June 2002

Colour

Plumage details are often important for correct identification, so you should try to note as much detail as possible. The basic colour of the bird can be an important clue, so note the colour of the upperparts (the back and wings), the underparts, the head and the tail. 

Make a note of any prominent patches of bright colour. For instance, a blue patch on the wing would almost certainly belong to a jay, and a small bird with a red face and yellow on the wing would be a goldfinch. Does the bird have any obvious markings, such as stripes above the eye, streaks on the chest or bars on the wing? Is the tail the same colour as the back of the bird; is it all one colour, or does it have paler feathers on the outside or at the tip? 

Yet again, there are pitfalls that can throw the unwary. Certain lighting conditions or wet feathers can make the bird look different. The juveniles of some birds have different colour from the adults, and the plumage of many adults changes with seasons.

 Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, looking around from a bare twig, Co. Durham

Habitat

Understanding the types of place certain birds prefer is a crucial factor in their identification. Some birds, many of which are familiar to you, such as blackbirds, finches or robins, are widespread and found in many habitats. 

Certain species of bird favour a particular type of habitat, for instance capercaillies live in the ancient Scots pine forests and ring ouzels are found in rocky, scree-covered hills. So it is important to think about the kinds of birds you are likely to find in any given habitat – you would not expect to find an osprey in a garden or a woodpecker on open treeless moorland.

Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, male displaying, Abernethy

Top tips

Deciding on the identity of a bird can be extremely frustrating, but rewarding when you work out what you have seen. However, there are pitfalls and the following tips may be useful.

  • Become familiar with the names of different parts of a bird’s body. This will help when writing your notes or when you are describing the bird to others.
  • Use a notebook to record your sightings. This will develop your powers of observation and eye for detail. Do not rely on leafing through your fieldguide for the bird when you return home.
  • Keep your ears open. Many birds are heard before they are seen, so try to learn their calls. Look for sudden movements, which might give away the location of the bird.
  • Do not harass a bird to get a better view - the bird's welfare must always come first. The 'Code of conduct for birdwatchers' page explains the good practice and your responsibilities as a birdwatcher.
  • Get to know the birds of your local area - when you know what is common, then the uncommon will become noticeable. Plan your walk with the sun behind you, making it easier to see the birds.
  • If you intend to visit a site new to you for the first time, carry out some research before the visit. This will give you a good idea of what to expect to see.
  • Be aware of the possibility of albinos and escaped cage birds - these can seriously frustrate any efforts at identification. A bird with a strange combination of colours (eg a finch with a red beak) will most likely be a cage bird. Unexpected white markings in an otherwise familiar bird are likely to indicate a partly albino bird. Try to think of the bird without the white colour to help guide you to the correct identification.
  • Try to find a mentor, someone who knows their birds and would be willing to pass on their knowledge.
  • Before you make up your mind on the identity of the bird, check to make sure that the species you think the bird is, is actually found in the UK. Although rarities do occur, the chances of stumbling on one are slight.
  • And finally, mastering the skills needs lots of practice, patience and perseverance!  
Man birdwatching on bench