What To Look For When Identifying Birds

There are a number of features that will help you identify birds that you should take a note of when out bird watching. Before you go read through your field guide to learn the birds that you should expect to see in the area and try and memorise the more common ones.


Estimate the size of the bird by comparing it with other species that you recognise alongside it. If this is not possible try and compare it with species that you are familiar with. For example, is it the size of a blue tit, black bird or owl.

Birds will often look bigger than they really are in poor light and it can be difficult to estimate the size of a bird in flight so again compare it with other birds that you see in the air with it.

See if the shape of the bird reminds you of other species you are familiar with – it may be part of the same family which could help with identification. Pay extra attention to the bill and the legs as these are important in identifying birds.

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

Look at the length and colour of the legs and note whether the feet have talons or are webbed.

Plumage details are very important for correct identification so try and note as much detail as possible. Look at the colour of the upperparts – the back and the wings, the underparts, the head and the tail.

Look for any prominent patches of bright colour. For example, a blue patch on the wing would almost certainly mean your bid is a jay and a small bird with a red face and yellow in the wing would be a goldfinch.

Take a note of any obvious markings such as stripes above the eye, streaks on the chest or bars on the wing and compare the tail colour to the rest of the body. Be aware that certain lighting conditions and wet weather can make the bird look different. Juveniles will often be a different colour from adult birds and the plumage of many birds will change throughout the year.

Take a look at our bird identification guides which give details of what to look out for when identifying birds.

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