Discover the Joy of Birdwatching: Learn How to Identify Wild Birds

Are you a beginner birdwatcher looking to learn how to identify wild birds?

Bird identification can seem daunting at first glance, but with practice, and the helpful tips below, it doesn't have to be.

In this section of the site, we will discuss methods such as:

  • observing features like size and shape
  • using binoculars or spotting scopes for more detailed study
  • listening for songs that are unique to each species
  • consulting reference books such as field guides or online apps
  • taking pictures which can help narrow down potential matches.

All the photos on this page were taken by me.

You'll also learn about other factors like habitat, time of year, migration patterns, etc., which play an important role in nailing bird ID.

By following these simple steps, even as a novice birdwatcher, you will soon recognize the various types of birds you come across on your adventures!

Bird identification is a process that requires practice and skill, but with the proper guidance, anyone can become proficient in putting a name to the birds they see.

Common buzzardThe solid body shape, fanned tail and distinctive patterning indicate this is a Common Buzzard.

Basic Bird Identification Techniques for Beginners

One of the most basic techniques for identifying wild birds is to notice how they look and act.

Take note of details such as the size, shape, and colour of the bird's head, beak, and eyes, as well as its overall body shape.

Look for any markings or colour variations in the wings or tail.

Then, roughly classify it - is it a duck, bird of prey or songbird? Easy so far?

It can be helpful to have a field guide or bird book to compare what you see in nature with printed images and descriptions.

Taking your own photos or a video of a bird can also help narrow down possibilities.

Using a long lens to get close-ups can enable you to upload them to a website like eBird, where experts can help you.

Try to get photos from different angles so that the front, side, and tail are visible to aid identification.

Take a notebook, or mobile device, with you for jotting down details and creating quick sketches of key features that will aid identification later. You don't have to be an artist; a scribble with colour notations will do the job!

It is also helpful to take notes about ...

  • Where you saw the bird
  • What habitat was it in?
  • What other birds were nearby?
  • Was it part of a flock or by itself?
  • Was it singing or calling? Hint: only male birds sing as a rule.

All this information can help build up your knowledge base for future reference.

How big is it?

Ever asked a fisherman how big the fish he caught was? Did you believe the answer?

Out of context, it is difficult to gauge size accurately. Look for something else in the vicinity to compare the bird against. Ideally, try to compare the unknown bird with one nearby that you are familiar with.

Is it perched on a delicate twig or something more substantial? This may indicate the weight of the bird.

When you haven't seen a bird species before, it can be easy to convince yourself that what you see is much larger than it is.

One that caught me out in my early days, was a Crow. It seemed huge and I was sure it was a Raven, even though a more experienced birdwatcher disagreed. It wasn't until I saw my first Raven, I realized my mistake!

What shape bill does the bird have?

pied avocetThe distinctive long upturned bills identifies this pair as Pied Avocets instantly

Unlock clues to the bird's diet by looking at its bill and observing its habitat. These snippets of information can all help when working out what type of bird it is.

  • A large, streaky patterned bird with a long down-curved bill, standing in shallow water? Almost certainly a Curlew (if you are in the UK like me).
  • How about another water bird with a long black bill that curves upwards at the tip, on a bird with white and black plumage? Can only be an Avocet!
  • A tall showy, white bird with a light green area between the bright yellow bill and the eye? You've found yourself a Great White Egret!

Bird's bills have evolved to suit the type of food they eat; long and thin for probing for invertebrates in the wet mud of an estuary; or short, thick, and heavy for cracking seeds.

bramblingThe short heavy bill helps to identify this Brambling as a seed eater

Check out the tail and wings

long-tailed-titTiny beak and long tail, along with the small overall size and colouration identify this as a Long Tailed Tit

Does it have a long or short tail? Is the tail striped or plain? Is it forked, straight or fan-shaped?

Are its wings rounded, squared-off or pointed? Do they have coloured markings or are they plain with perhaps a contrasting coloured edge? Do the wings have 'fingers' at the ends, and if so, how many?

Check to see if the wings are stiff or bent at an angle when the bird is flying.

How long are the wings from tip to tip? Long and thin or short and stubby?

GoldfinchThe red around the eye and the yellow wing flash tell us this is a European Goldfinch

Study the bird for distinctive features

Learn to recognize common patterns and features to help you identify unfamiliar birds.

Birders often refer to "field marks", which are distinctive physical traits that allow experts to identify a bird.

These include eye rings, patches and stripes, wing bars, the crown (or top of head) sometimes with a crest, and a bib or throat patch.

The colour of the legs can also be a tell tale sign which helps with identification.

Male blackbird portraitThe yellow bill and eye ring immediately tell us this is a male blackbird

Birds being what they are, they don't tend to hang around and let you study them from all angles.

On your first glance you might only spot one of these features but it will give you a clue that you can then build on if you get a second chance to view the bird.

Differences within the same species

Often the male and female of a bird species will wear different plumage, which can make things tricky for the novice birdwatcher.

These differences may be subtle, or very obvious indeed, as with the ducks below photographed at Barnwell Country Park in Northamptonshire!

mandarin drake on landThe colourful Mandarin Drake (male)
female mandarinCompared to the more subtly coloured female Mandarin!

This is known as sexual dimorphism.

Just to muddy the waters further, at certain times of the year a male duck, that is normally easy to identify, will moult his feathers and look completely different!

In some birds the feather patterns can be similar between males and females, however, the colours can vary. For example, in the Reed Buntings below the darker plumage of the male is designed to attract a mate, whereas the browner female is less easily spotted when on the nest. 

female reed buntingFemale Reed Bunting
male reed buntingMale Reed Bunting in the breeding season

The LBJs can trip you up!

Have you heard the expression little brown jobs or LBJs?

Several birds fall into this category and can be difficult to tell apart. They generally all have brown feathers with few distinguishing marks to help with identification. You will need to study them in detail, either in the field or when looking at your photos on the computer later.

Again size along with general body and tail shape should help here, but learning how to identify wild birds that are very similar will require more practice!

Can you name the LBJs below? Answers lower down the page.

house sparrowA more unusual pose where the upright tail may confuse the novice
dunnock in snowFluffed up to keep warm
female-chaffinchA female this time
wren on postIs this bill for eating insects rather than seeds?

Be aware of lighting conditions

The lighting conditions can also confuse matters. 

The following two photos both show the Treecreeper, but in one the bird appears browner than in the other due to the weather.

These little birds are difficult to spot in the first place, as they cling to the bark of the tree with their pale bellies hidden.

treecreeper 1Treecreeper in overcast light appears grey.
treecreeper 2A Treecreeper in sunlight shows the brown plumage more accurately

Using Binoculars or a Spotting Scope

There are various tools a beginner birdwatcher can use to aid in visual identification.

Binoculars are an excellent tool for magnification and detail. They are beneficial for identifying birds that aren't close enough to see their details with the naked eye.

Spotting scopes or high-powered telescopes help you see birds that are further away. Some spotting scopes have built-in image stabilization to produce a clear image without movement or vibrations from the user's hand.

Beginner birdwatchers should use binoculars or spotting scopes with caution—without proper training, these devices can cause eye strain and headaches if misused.

Answers to the LBJ photos

How did you get on with identifying the little brown birds?

The first photo shows a male House Sparrow. His pose with tail in the air might lead someone learning how to identify wild birds to mistake him for a wren. 

Next we have a little bird on a snowy branch. Sometimes known as a Hedge Sparrow, this is actually a Dunnock. Both males and females of this species look alike.

The third photo is a portrait of a female Chaffinch. She lacks the pinkish breast and contrasting wings of the male.

The last photo shows the tiny wren. That upright tail has distinctive darker markings that are not all that obvious in this shot, which could make ID more tricky.

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