Nice, that white belly’s just so distinctive. Wow, that is awesome. You know, whether it’s the brilliant red of Northern Cardinal or the dapper plumage of this Tricolored Heron, color is what attracts so many of us to birding. But for identification purposes, it’s not so much color, as it is color pattern, that we find so useful in the field. On this episode of “Inside Birding”, we’re going to explore the second key to identification: color pattern, and reveal how this easy-to-see clue can help you identify more birds. Birders often get really frustrated when they try to make an exact comparison between the birds that they see in the field with those they find in their field guides. While the illustrations in your field guides are often accurate, they’re artistic depictions of birds in perfect plumages. The problem is when we’re in the field we rarely see birds in perfect plumages or in ideal conditions. This means that if you rely on a subtle plumage detail, you’ll probably get frustrated and may miss out on the chance to identify the bird before it flies away. So what do you do? Ignore the subtleties, focus on the big picture, and look at overall color pattern. Oh, look, there’s a Pileated Woodpecker. Sweet. This is a great bird for looking at color pattern because it’s so distinct. When we use color pattern to identify a bird, we’re trying to generate an overall impression of how color is arranged on a bird’s body. This can be as simple or detailed as your look at the bird will allow. For example, if you’re in a woodland and you see a bird like this Pileated Woodpecker and it flashes through your field of view quickly, maybe all you’ll notice is that it’s an overwhelmingly black and white bird. This is a decent start, but you’ve got better chance of identifying the bird if you’re able to describe the pattern of color on its body. The best descriptions are like overall color inventories of the different parts of a bird. On this Pileated Woodpecker, I might say that it has a black body with a red crest, and white in the wings. If you get a really good look at the bird, you can look at additional features that are helpful for identification. On this Pileated Woodpecker, I’d say that it has a black-and-white pattern on its head and neck. All right, now that we’ve identified a Pileated Woodpecker using color pattern, let’s practice the skill by looking at some examples. While there aren’t tons of birds that you’ll be able to identify by color pattern alone, the Yellow-headed Blackbird is certainly one that you can. If you don’t recognize this denizen of western marshes by its raucous courtship display, you should have no problem identifying it by its color pattern. It’s got a black body with a bright yellow head, and a little white patch on the wings. The male American Redstart is one of the easiest warblers to identify thanks to its color pattern. The stunning contrast between orange and black make it almost unmistakable. If I were to describe its color pattern, I might say it’s got a jet black head and body, with orange patches on the sides of the breasts, wings, and tail. Let’s face it, birds are capable of moving really quickly. One minute you see them and the next they’re gone. In the heat of the moment, it can be really hard to know where to focus your attention. For this reason, it’s important to train yourself to look at the bird’s body parts and patterns that are most useful for an identification. And that’s the subject of today’s “pro insight”. When you’re trying to identify a bird, it’s important to look for patterns and features that really stand out. After trying a lot of different approaches, I found there’s two parts of a bird that are most useful for identification: the bird’s head and wings. Let’s start by looking at the wings. This is a Lazuli Bunting and it has a color pattern that’s similar to both Eastern and Western Bluebirds: blue above with some orange on the breast and a white belly. But what really jumps out and distinguishes the Lazuli Bunting from either of the bluebirds, are the two bold white markings on the wings which we call wing bars. Let’s look at some video and see how this looks on the Lazuli Bunting in the field. You’ll see that there is variation between individuals; but remember, we’re looking for color patterns that really stand out, and on this Lazuli Bunting, the thing that I first noticed is the bold white upper wing bar. This Lazuli Bunting is a little bit more obstructed, maybe more like we would see in the field. But if we look carefully, we can still make out that bold white wing bar. By training yourself to look at a bird’s wings and look for wing bars, you’ll be able to more accurately identify birds like this Lazuli Bunting. Now let’s turn our attention to the bird’s head and look for facial features that will be most useful for identification. One of the best starting points is the eye-ring. An eye-ring is generally a bold, contrasting group of feathers or skin around the bird’s eye. This Nashville Warbler provides a great example. It’s generally yellow below, olive above, with a grayish head. But the thing that really stands out and that can help you identify it, is the bird’s bold white eye-ring. Even on a video like this, when you’re looking up in a tree and seeing a bird flitting around quickly, if you’ve trained yourself to look at the bird’s head and see that bold white eye-ring, you’ll have no trouble recognizing this as a Nashville Warbler. Now, let’s take a look at a different facial feature: the spectacles. Oh, this is pretty cool. Check out this Blue-headed Vireo that’s sitting on its nest. This bird has bold white spectacles. The white spectacles are similar to an eye-ring, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that the white circle is broken by some black in front of the eye. The white thing continues around over the bill, making it look like the bird is wearing eyeglasses. If we take a look at the bird’s entire body, like in this still image, we see those bold white spectacles, but we’ll also notice that this bird has two bold white wing bars. Couple this with your observations of the bird’s overall color pattern and you’ll easily be able identify this bird as a Blue-headed Vireo. Sometimes a bird’s face pattern may be a bit more involved. This Chipping Sparrow doesn’t have spectacles or a bold white eye-ring, but it does have a distinctive face pattern. Let’s zoom in and learn some terminology that will help us describe what we’re seeing. Let’s start at the top of the bird’s head, an area that we call the crown. On this Chipping Sparrow, the crown are the rufous feathers, just as it sounds, at the top of the bird’s head. The crown is bordered by a white line below which we call the supercilium. The supercilium runs from above and in front of the bird’s eye to the back of its head and it’s defined by the black line beneath it, the eye-line. Eye-lines run from the bird’s bill back through the eye to the back of the head. Below the eye-line, you’ll notice this grayish group of feathers that appear to be on the bird’s cheek. These are called the ear coverts or auriculars. Beneath this and just above the bird’s throat is an area that’s a little more difficult to see on this bird, the malar. This is the white area just below the ear coverts that are bordered by a fine blackish line. Now let’s put everything we’ve learned together on a single bird, the Golden-crowned Kinglet. This bird doesn’t have an eye-ring or spectacles, but it does have a gold crown, bordered by black stripes running along the side of the crown. Below that is a white supercilium that runs above the bird’s dark eye-line. And finally, check out the wings, it’s got an obvious bold white wing bar. Together all these patterns help us identify the bird as a Golden-crowned Kinglet. We could look for more subtle details, but remember we’re training ourselves to see the patterns that really stand out. Birding by color pattern is all about looking past subtle plumage details and taking in an overall color inventory. The more time you spend watching the bird, the better you’ll be able to describe its color pattern and apply it to your identification. Recognizing color pattern is a fundamental key for becoming a better birder. And when you take color pattern and combine it with the other three keys to identification, size and shape, behavior, and habitat, you’ll have a rock solid foundation for identifying birds. So get out there and start putting all of your observational skills to use and take your birding to the next level.

End of transcript

How would you describe a friend to someone who has never met them before? You might say, “She has brown hair and green eyes.” We can rely on similar color patterns to distinguish birds in the field. Since birds can fly out of sight at any second, it’s important to focus on features that can be noticed at a moment’s glance. Some birds have bold white wing bars that stand out at a distance. Others appear to be wearing glasses, or “spectacles.” Join Chris Wood and Jessie Barry as they describe how color pattern can be used to quickly identify birds in the field.

This video is part of our 4-part Inside Birding series. Each roughly 10-minute video guides you through the 4 basic keys to bird identification with clear instruction and examples. The four videos in the series are:

Inside Birding: Size & Shape
Inside Birding: Color Pattern
Inside Birding: Understanding Behavior
Inside Birding: Habitat

For more on the 4 keys of bird ID, see our Bird ID Skills pages on All About Birds.

Would you like to learn more about using color and pattern to identify more birds in your area? Bird Academy’s online courses let enthusiasts of all levels learn at their own pace. You can browse our course catalog to find the perfect online learning resource for yourself. Be a better birder today: View course catalog