Bird Identification: Narrowing It Down
September 10, 2021
By Bird Watcher’s Digest Staff
More than 2,000 bird species have been reported in North America (excluding Hawaii), and roughly 10,000 bird species exist on Earth. If you are a new bird watcher, don’t be intimidated by those big numbers: There’s no need to recognize them all, or even to learn their names! Few birders can identify all the birds of North America, but give them a field guide (a book or an app), and odds are they can figure it out in a few minutes.
When you see a bird that you can’t identify, try figuring it out its family. Yes, every bird has a mom and dad and siblings, but scientists have a long-established classification system that groups birds with common ancestors. The dog family (canines), includes dogs, foxes, wolves, dingoes (and others). Felines includes housecats, bobcats, pumas, lions, tigers, etc. It’s the same with birds. You can recognize owls, right? And woodpeckers and waterfowl. You know a hawk when you see one, don’t you? So you’re already at least a little familiar with bird classification (taxonomy), although you might not have realized it previously.
Here’s a list of common bird families in North America, and a few examples of species in that group. How many of them do you recognize? (NOTE: DO NOT MEMORIZE THIS LIST!)
There are others, but just by reading through this list, you’ve reinforced what you already know about bird groups. The longer you enjoy bird watching, the more familiar these groupings will become. If you’re serious about birding, and if there’s a bird group you don’t recognize, look it up, either in a field guide or on the internet. It will help you down the road if, someday, you spot a bird in a now-unfamiliar group.
If you are intimidated by all the possibilities of bird species—now that you’re looking for them—try narrowing your search. When you see a bird you can’t identify, the first thing you should do is to try to figure out its family. Is the bird a duck or goose? Does it look like some sort of sparrow? With each group you eliminate, the possibilities become smaller. If a species looks sort of like a dove, go to the pigeons and dove section of your field guide and take note of the range maps to see which species are found near where you are.
These birds are not owls, but waterfowl. Realizing that has narrowed their
Using this technique requires you to think about what makes a hawk a hawk, how finches look different from owls, and characteristics common to woodpeckers. But you’ve probably been doing that unconsciously since you were a kid and realized that Daffy Duck was not the same species as Woody Woodpecker, or even a close cousin.
Field guides are arranged by taxonomy, so as you use it, pay attention to which groups are at the beginning of the book (waterfowl, loons), as well as the middle (woodpeckers), and the back (sparrows, warblers). If you become serious about birding, all of this will subtly sink into your brain, but, of course, you can intentionally study this topic to make it happen faster. There’s no obligation to study this, but the more time you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it.
This bird is not considered a waterfowl. It’s a woodpecker. Realizing that has
By figuring out a bird’s family, you’ll be reducing the possibilities from hundreds to dozens, or sometimes just a handful. And it’s so satisfying to be able to identify a species you’ve never seen before, but you figured it out because you knew it was related to a familiar species.
Here’s a link to a bird-identification guide that starts out with categories of birds. Click on a bird group, and it will provide a list of nearly all the species in that group. If you stick with birding, someday your brain will do this for you automatically.
You recognize that this bird is a hawk. But how? What makes a hawk a hawk?