How to Identify Mystery Birds

Use these techniques when a puzzling bird flies past.

Even if you know your local birds, sometimes an unfamiliar one will appear, which doesn’t match anything you’ve seen before. Here are some pointers and questions to consider the next time you spot a baffling bird.

Take it all in
Don’t immediately reach for your field guide. Instead, pay attention to the bird. What does it look and sound like? How does it move? The book won’t fly away, but the bird will.

How to Identify Mystery Birds | Birds & Blooms MagazineROLF NUSSBAUMER
ROLF NUSSBAUMER Yellow-billed cuckoo

Compare size and shape
A bird’s size is hard to judge, so compare it to a well-known bird. It’s more helpful to say “robin-sized” or “smaller than a sparrow” than estimate its size in inches. Notice its body and bill shape, too. Is the bird stout or slender? Long-tailed or short-tailed? Is the bill thin like a warbler’s or thick like a finch’s?

Consider surroundings
An open field is home to other birds than a forest or on the open waters of a lake. Even within the same habitat, different birds will seek out different niches. Is your mystery bird hopping on the ground, climbing up a tree trunk or flitting around the tips of twigs? These behaviors offer good clues.

How to Identify Mystery Birds | Birds & Blooms MagazineSTEVE & DAVE MASLOWSKI
STEVE & DAVE MASLOWSKI Eastern bluebird with juvenile

Look for field marks
The markings on a bird can tell you a lot. Does it have a ring around its eye or a stripe above it? Is the chest spotted or striped?

Watch out for tricky birds
Some oddities can be chalked up to perplexing plumage of common local species. Is it possible the bird is leucistic with patches of white feathers? Could it be stained from something it was eating? Could it be a young bird with juvenile plumage different from that of its parents?

Write down details
Don’t rely on memory alone. It’s best practice to record your observations before you look in a book or online to identify the bird. If you start writing a description while the bird is still around, you may notice details you would otherwise miss.

Take a photo
Even a distant image may help pin down the ID. If your phone has a camera, take advantage and snap several pictures. Just don’t waste a lot of time trying to get the perfect shot; you need to look at the bird, too.

What to do if You Spot a Rare Bird
Birds sometimes wander outside their normal ranges. If you identify such a stray at your favorite birding spot or feeder, here’s what you should do:

  • Consider whether you should share the sighting. If the bird is truly rare, hundreds of birders may want to see it. That’s fine if it’s a public park, but could be a problem if it’s a feeder outside your bedroom window.
  • If you decide to report the sighting, confirm the ID with good photos and share them with a local expert. Check with the National Audubon Society, audubon.org, for nearby chapters or centers. Or, contact the American Birding Association at aba.org/contact.

    How to Identify Mystery Birds | Birds & Blooms MagazineCHRISTINE HAINES
    CHRISTINE HAINES Look for brown creepers as they move stealthily up tree trunks.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard.