One thing all really good birders have in common is that they know how to recognize birds. Sounds obvious, right? But you may not know is that experts actually key into four characteristics to identify birds. That’s right. Those four keys to identification are size and shape, overall color pattern, behavior, and habitat. When experts use these to identify birds, they’re able to identify more birds and they’re able to identify them more often. And with some practice of these four keys, you’ll start looking at birds differently. If you do, we promise youíll become a better birder. So if you’ve ever wondered how that hotshot birder is able to identify a bird as it flies by quickly, well, we’re going to let you in on their little secret. In this installment of “Inside Birding”, we’re going to cover the first key to identification: size and shape. If there’s one thing I wish I knew when I was starting out, it would be the importance of using size and shape to identify birds. Like most people, I began by focusing on field marks and plumage details. But what I didn’t realize is how variable plumages can be, especially as they change from one season to the next. While field marks can be helpful, it’s not actually what most experienced birders use to identify birds. We actually identify birds in the same way we identify things we see every day. So, think of it this way. When you see a friend or family member from a distance, you recognize them not by a detail, like their eye color or their hair style, but by their overall appearance, their height, their build, that sort of thing. So if you can apply this same technique to birding, you’ll be able to identify birds as easily as you recognize your friends. This looks like a really great place to find birds. We’ve got a great mix of habitat. We’ve got these low grasses and wildflowers; we’ve got this big bank of deciduous trees. We have this big conifer over here. We have another bank of conifers over here. What I really like are all these berry-producing shrubs. That’s gonna make this a great place to look for American Robin. I know what you’re thinking: American Robin, they’re too easy, they’re too common. But here’s the thing, it makes sense to practice your birding skills with a bird that you know you can locate, and most importantly, really spend time watching it. All right, where are they? Let’s go find some robins. There’s a couple of phoebes up just where there’s the first main rise on the left side. Hearing some chickadees up there. There’s a pretty sweet waxwing. All right, here we go, here’s a robin. Okay, so check it out. We’ve got a medium-sized songbird that’s definitely smaller than a crow but larger than a sparrow. So Jessie just did two really important things when identifying birds by size and shape. First, she put the bird into the correct group or family of birds. And I know what you’re thinking, that could be pretty hard, but you probably already know more than you think you do. Is the bird a duck, is it a heron, is it a raptor? Even the most basic observations are useful. The next thing she did was to make a size comparison. Did you hear how she said it’s smaller than a crow, but larger than a sparrow? Making comparisons is key to identifying birds. Yeah, when we’re out birding, we’re constantly making comparisons, narrowing down the list of species to figure out what we’re looking at. Now that we’ve checked out size, let’s look at the shape. Oh, here’s a robin, teed up, just to the left of the tall conifer. Oh, yeah. Oh, it’s pretty chunky, kind of pot-bellied. So when observing a bird’s shape, it’s important to start out with the overall impression of the bird. Jessie thought it was pretty chunky. The next thing she’ll do is key in on those parts of the bird that are most useful for identification: the head, the bill, the length of the wings and the length of the tail. All the while, she’s constantly making comparisons with the bird she sees to what she already knows. Yeah, so taking a closer look at its shape, we can see that it’s got a fairly long bill, rather small head, large body, and the tail is relatively long. Yeah, good description. So if I were to compare this bird to other birds I know, I’d say that it has a shorter tail than a mockingbird but it has a larger body. It doesn’t have a crest like a Blue Jay or cardinal would. And check out how long those wings are, nothing like a House Wren’s stubby wings. I don’t think I can overstate the importance of making comparisons when you’re out birding. Now I know this is going to sound a little bit weird, but one of the best type of comparisons that you can make is to compare the bird to itself. And that’s a subject of today’s “pro insight”. Comparing an individual bird’s body parts with one another, for example the length of the wings relative to the length of the tail, can be a particularly good way to identify birds that appear very similar. A perfect example of this – Hairy and Downy Woodpecker. Here’s what we’re talking about. We have a Hairy Woodpecker on the side of the feeder. Now we have a Downy Woodpecker on the side of the same feeder. In both cases, they’re males; you can tell by the red on the top of the head. And just for comparison, now we have a female Downy Woodpecker, no red on the back of the head. You can see how confusing these two species can be. They really look very similar to each other. Now, let’s take a closer look at a couple of still images. Here on the left, we have a Downy Woodpecker and on the right, a Hairy Woodpecker. Again, it’s really easy to see why these species are commonly confused, but when you have them right next to each other, like we do now, the first thing that really jumps out is how much larger the Hairy Woodpecker is. The problem of course is that we’d never see birds like this in the field, so what we’re going to do is compare the bird to itself. Let’s zoom in and see what I’m talking about. Here on the Downy Woodpecker the length of the bill is clearly shorter, relative to the width of the head. If you were to take the bill and rotate it one hundred and eighty degrees, the bill would barely extend past the eye. If we turn our attention now to the Hairy Woodpecker, here we can see that the bill’s obviously larger and longer relative to the width of the head. If you were to take its bill and rotate it a hundred and eighty degrees, the bill would extend well past the eye. Let’s take one last look at these together and it becomes clear what I’m talking about. But these are still photos and still photos are really easy. So now let’s take a look at birds as we might see them in the field and put this ID skill to use. This one’s pretty easy. Again, look at how large the bill is. If you were to rotate that a hundred and eighty degrees, it would clearly go beyond the eye. Any guesses? That’s right, Hairy Woodpecker. Now we have a bird as I tend to see them in the field with a lot of vegetation between me and the bird. But that is a tiny bill. That’s right; it’s a Downy Woodpecker. Now this is pretty sweet. We have a bird in the nest cavity. Again, look at the length of the bill. That’s a monster. Do you know what it is? Hairy Woodpecker. Good view. Again, really large bill. Another Hairy Woodpecker. All right, so you’re probably getting the hang of this by now. You know separating Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers is just one of many identification challenges that can be quickly solved using this type of comparison. The great thing about it is, you don’t need another object or another bird to make comparisons to. All you have to do is to compare the bird to itself. Whether we’re looking at a bird’s overall structure or we’re comparing individual parts of the bird, we use size and shape more than anything else to identify birds. So to recap, the first thing you want to do when you find a bird is figure out what group or family the bird belongs to. Next, take a look at the overall size and shape and make comparisons to birds you already know. And finally, if you get a good read on the bird, take a look at the body parts and look at their size and shape and see how they relate to one another. Now keep in mind, size and shape alone may not be enough to enable you to identify every bird you see in every situation, but when you combine size and shape with overall color pattern, behavior and habitat, the other three keys to identification which we’ll cover in future episodes, size and shape becomes a powerful way of identifying birds. And remember birds are everywhere, so get out there and take your birding to next level.

End of transcript

How closely and carefully do you need to look at a bird to identify it? Having a live bird in hand would be ideal, but you can learn a lot even from a distance. Is the bird about the size of a crow, or closer to the size of a sparrow? How large is the bill in relation to the rest of the head? These characteristics can often distinguish one bird species from another. Join Chris Wood and Jessie Barry as they put their knowledge of external avian anatomy into practice 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

Would you like to learn more about using size and shape 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