What to Look for When Identifying a Bird

One big challenge when people start birding is to know what they really need to look for when they identifying the many birds that they are seeing.

When working with new birders, I frequently notice that many of them have trouble describing details of a bird. This makes it hard for them to work through the process identifying the species. When people ask me to help with identifying a bird, here are some of the main details I’m looking for.


This can be one of the trickier identification features. We have a hard time telling how big a bird is unless there is something to directly compare it to. Do your best to find something you can compare a bird to for an accurate size. Also, always remember that the positioning of the bird can effect the apparent size.


Shape is often over looked when talking about identification. Try to compare the shape of the bird to other species that you know. Does it look like a woodpecker, finch, chickadee, etc?


This tends to be the first thing people notice about a bird but it’s not always the most helpful. Although birds come in many different colors, there are also many species that have the same colors as well. Obviously, color will be something you notice but try to see more than just the main color of the bird.

What to Look for When Identifying a Bird©Rob Ripma
©Rob Ripma Although you could describe this Scarlet Tanager as red, it would be hard to identify if you didn’t notice the black wings.
Field Marks

Many times field marks are critical to making a correct identification. Look for things like wing-bars, a tuft, stripes, spots, or anything else that might really separate the bird you are seeing from others.

What to Look for When Identifying a Bird©Rob Ripma
©Rob Ripma Blue-headed Vireo has many interesting field marks. A few that I would make note of are the wing-bars, white spectacles, and the very dark cap and face.

Behavior can also help eliminate some species from consideration. Take note of any behavior that you observe. This could be whether or not the bird visited your feeder, where it tended to perch, flight pattern, or any number of other things.

Rob Ripma
Rob Ripma, a lifelong Indiana resident, has traveled and birded extensively throughout the Americas.