Bird Identification: Narrowing It Down

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.


 Barred owl
This bird is not a woodpecker. It’s an owl. Realizing that has narrowed its   
identification from several hundred possibilities to 19 North American owl
species. It is a barred owl. Photo from Wiki Commons


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!)

  • Ducks, geese, and waterfowl: mallard, trumpeter swan, Canada goose
  • Quail: northern bobwhite
  • Pheasants and grouse: ring-necked pheasant, ruffed grouse, wild turkey
  • Grebes: Clark’s grebe, pied-billed grebe
  • Pigeons and doves: band-tailed pigeon, mourning dove
  • Cuckoos: yellow-billed cuckoo, greater roadrunner
  • Nightjars: common nighthawk, eastern whip-poor-will
  • Swifts: chimney swift, Vaux’s swift
  • Hummingbirds: ruby-throated hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird
  • Coots and rails: American coot, common gallinule
  • Cranes: sandhill crane
  • Plovers: killdeer, piping plover
  • Sandpipers and allies: spotted sandpiper, American woodcock, red-necked phalarope
  • Gulls, terns, and skimmers: ring-billed gull, common tern, black skimmer
  • Loons: common loon
  • Cormorants: double-crested cormorant
  • Herons, egrets, and bitterns: great blue heron, snowy egret
  • New-world vultures: black vulture, turkey vulture
  • Hawks, eagles, and kites: bald eagle, red-tailed hawk
  • Owls: barred owl, western screech-owl
  • Woodpeckers: downy woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker
  • Falcons: peregrine falcon, American kestrel
  • Flycatchers: eastern phoebe, black phoebe, vermillion flycatcher
  • Vireos: red-eyed vireo, warbling vireo
  • Corvids: blue jay, common raven, American crow, black-billed magpie
  • Chickadees and titmice: Black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse
  • Swallows: barn swallow, tree swallow
  • Nuthatches: white-breasted nuthatch, red-breasted nuthatch
  • Wrens: house wren, Bewick’s wren
  • Starlings: European starling
  • Mockingbirds and thrashers: northern mockingbird, gray catbird, curve-billed thrasher
  • Thrushes: American robin, eastern bluebird
  • Finches: evening grosbeak, house finch, lesser goldfinch, red crossbill
  • New-world sparrows: song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, spotted towhee
  • Icterids (blackbirds and orioles): red-winged blackbird, Baltimore oriole, common grackle
  • New-world warblers: yellow warbler, American redstart
  • Cardinals and allies: scarlet tanager, northern cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, painted bunting.


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.



 Northern Shoveler  

These birds are not owls, but waterfowl. Realizing that has narrowed their
 identification from several hundred possibilities to 51 North American
 waterfowl species. If you realize that they’re not swans, and not geese, but
ducks, the possibilities are down to 39. These are northern shovelers, a male
and a female. Photo from Wiki Commons


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.


 Pileated woodpecker

This bird is not considered a waterfowl. It’s a woodpecker. Realizing that has
 narrowed its identification from several hundred possibilities to 22 North
 American woodpecker species. It is a pileated woodpecker. Photo from Wiki Commons


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.


 Red-shouldered hawk

You recognize that this bird is a hawk. But how? What makes a hawk a hawk?
The more you study birds, the more easily you will recognize bird families,
which will help you identify the species. Photo by
  Don Green via Wiki Commons