Get to grips with bird identification - for beginners and beyond

Great tit perched on branch | The RSPB

To celebrate the launch of the new RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds, author Marianne Taylor has put together her expert tips on bird identification.

Great tit perched on branch | The RSPB

Watching birds is a delight, but identifying birds can be a frustrating challenge. For every bird that is easily and instantly recognisable from any angle, there seem to be a dozen more that are anything but, and even the most experienced birdwatchers sometimes have to admit defeat when faced with a particularly tricky juvenile gull or skulking warbler.


Six pointers to get you started

When you are starting out, there are a few general guidelines that will help you to identify an unfamiliar bird more easily. The longer and clearer your view, the more features you can note (and perhaps you can take a photo too), but sightings are often brief, so look for features in this general order:

  1. Shape: What are its body proportions? Does anything stand out in comparison to similar birds that you know well – a particularly long bill or short tail, a head that looks small or big relative to its body? If it is flying, do its wings look rounded or pointed? Is its tail square-cut, rounded, wedge-shaped or forked?
  2. Pattern: Look for any striking contrasts – a pale band on a darker wing, a dark stripe through the eye and pale stripe above, whether its underside is marked with spots, streaks or blocks of colour.
  3. Size: We are generally poor at accurately assessing the size of unfamiliar birds, but if it is alongside other, familiar birds, its size relative to them can be very helpful.
  4. Colour: This can be helpful, especially if the bird shows distinct patches of bright coloration, but keep in mind that varying light conditions can seriously distort our perception of colour, especially more subtle colours.
  5. Voice: Any sounds you hear the bird make can really help with identification, and sometimes sound is all you get, if the bird is singing or calling out of view. It’s always worth trying to get a recording.
  6. Behaviour: Look for the way the bird moves (does it run or hop, is its flight direct, circling or bounding, does it dabble or dive?) and note any quirks, such as head-bobbing, tail-shivering or hovering.


Putting it to the test with garden birds

Here are some examples of how using these features can help you quickly identify some potentially tricky garden birds.


Shape and pattern: how to ID blue, great and coal tits

These three species can be confused, but a look at the shape and patterns of the bird will help you tell them apart.

  • Blue tit (pictured above): Compact but well proportioned. Always shows a dark line through the eye and a wider pale line above, isolating the dark patch on top of the head. Narrow dark belly stripe. One pale wingbar.
  • Great tit Rangy-looking, rather long-tailed. Dark head with a pale cheek patch, broad dark belly stripe. One pale wingbar.
  • Coal tit Head looks big relative to compact body. Dark cap and wide dark bib, no belly stripe. Wide pale stripe on back of neck. Two pale wingbars.

1027686-GAL-greenfinch on blossom branch.jpg

Size: the difference between siskins and greenfinchs

These two green and yellow-toned finches regularly visit garden feeders. A greenfinch (pictured) is about the size of a house sparrow, while a siskin is about the size of a blue tit.

2155273-GAL-feral pigeons.jpg

Colour: top tips for woodpigeons, feral pigeons and stock doves

A good view of the eyes instantly separates these three species. A woodpigeon has whitish eyes (slightly duller but still pale in juveniles), a feral pigeon has orange eyes (browner in juveniles) and a stock dove has black eyes.

Budby South Forest--Spring--Chiffchaff perching on twig.jpg

Voice: is it a chiffchaff or a willow warbler?

These two very similar-looking warblers may sing in your garden in spring. A chiffchaff (pictured) has a simple, repetitive two-note song (chiff chaff, chiff chaff), while a willow warbler sings a much more elaborate, tuneful, descending-the-scale phrase.

1040839-GAL-dunnock on the grass.jpg

Shape and behaviour: juvenile robin versus juvenile dunnock

These are similar-sized, uniformly speckled brown birds. A juvenile robin has longer legs and proportionately bigger eyes. It tends to move with big hops, and regularly pauses its activities to perch in a ‘tall’ upright posture, with tail held higher than wings. A dunnock (pictured), however, is more continually active and ‘shuffling’, and frequently bobs its tail downwards.


Front cover of the pocket guide British Birds. Illustration of two goldcrests, perched on tree branches.

RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds

A compact, lightweight and informative guide to 310 of the most common birds found in the UK.


Buy the book