How to Identify Birds in Your Backyard

a hairy woodpecker pecking on a tree

Birds are everywhere, and once you learn the basic steps to their identification, you will be able to begin naming the birds in your backyard. You do not even need to be a trained expert! All this skill requires is a little knowledge, practice, and patience. Once you know what to look for, you will begin spotting many different species of birds visiting your garden and feeders.

an american robin showing field marks
An American Robin is a common backyard bird that is easy to ID!

Step 1: Select a field guide for bird identification 

There is no substitute for a good field guide in the arena of bird identification. Field guides are books or mobile apps that contain pictures, descriptions, range maps, and even sounds of various types of birds. They simplify the identification of birds from their appearance, behavior, and sounds by offering tips and tricks for each species.

We recommend selecting a field guide geared towards birds in your region if you are new to birding. That way, you can be sure to find information on the birds that are most likely to show up in your backyard or local birding hotspot. Once you have a little more experience with bird identification, you can branch out with your field guides. We encourage you to explore bird identification guides for specific groups of birds like raptors and warblers, or you can explore bird identification outside of our borders through international field guides!

Selecting the correct field guide is paramount to your bird identification success. However, most bird-lovers skip step 2.

Check out our Birding Books!

Step 2: Read your field guide introduction

No matter which field guide you choose, familiarize yourself with the introduction before carrying the guide into the field. Flip through the first 10-30 pages, look at the graphics, and read the descriptions for using the guide. The more familiar you are with your field guide, its organization, terminology, maps, and ID tips, the more efficiently you can use it in the field! 

Reading the introduction may seem a lesser step in the process, but skipping it can cause severe frustrations in the future!

Step 3: Learn to identify birds by sight, sound, and behavior

When learning to identify birds, we like to teach using a funnel system, starting broad and narrowing down until achieving ID. Here is the process we teach:

  1. Shape and Size
  2. Field Marks
  3. Sound
  4. Habitat
  5. Date and Location
  6. Behavior
  1. Shape and Size: Learning the basic shapes of birds is tied to learning the taxonomy of birds. Taxonomy is what scientists use to group birds based on shared characteristics. For example, warblers have a thin, insect-eating bill. Shape is the necessary first step to begin the identification of an unknown bird!

We also use size for identification in many cases. For example, we can isolate ducks and geese by comparing them to other commonly known waterfowl, narrowing our choices. If the bird is closer to a Mallard in size, we can eliminate geese and swans from the possibilities. Sizing in this example may be an oversimplification, but learning common species and comparing other birds to their sizes helps our identification process.

cackling goose in a field

 Here is a tricky ID! While this looks like a Canada Goose, it is a smaller relative called the Cackling Goose!

 

  1. Field Marks: One of the easiest ways to identify the birds in your backyard is by their appearance or plumage, also known as field marks. Different types of birds have different colors, patterns, and markings. For example, an American Robin has an orange breast and a black head. A Blue Jay has blue feathers, similar to a bluebird. It also has black and white markations that differ significantly from other blue-colored birds.
  1. Sound: While learning birds by sight may be the easiest for many backyard bird-lovers, learning bird sounds will open a new door to bird identification! Why? We often hear birds when we cannot see them!

Bird songs can be as different as bird plumage. Some bird songs are simple, like a robin's “cheery, cheer-up, cheerio." Other bird songs can be complex and beautiful, like a Wood Thrush's song, often described as "liquid notes pouring from a flute."

Each type of bird has a unique repertoire of songs, calls, and other sounds. Once you learn a few, you will be surprised at how many different bird songs you can identify. Some like to remember sounds using mnemonic devices. However, picking out patterns, pitches, sections, and qualities offers a better and lasting foundation for bird sound ID.

  1. Habitat: Checking your habitat is a quick way to eliminate certain species. And no, you do not need to be a plant expert to know your habitat. We would not expect wetland birds in a desert, and it would be strange to find grassland birds in a forest. Even using broad habitat applications with birds can aid in identification.
  1. Date and Location: Birds follow seasonal patterns. Use the migration patterns and the dates around them to help identify birds. For example, we would not expect to see a Snowy Owl in the lower 48 states outside of wintertime. Learning about the birds that visit your feeders can help narrow down your selections in your backyard. 
  1. Behavior: In addition to appearance and sound, birds also have different behaviors that can help us identify them. Behaviors can be as distinct as appearance or sound, so learn the typical behaviors of your local birds!

Examples of behaviors: 

  • nuthatches can walk down tree trunks head-first
  • woodpeckers peck at tree trunks, branches, and snags
  • juncos scratch in litter on the ground or in brush 
  • goldfinches fly in undulating patterns
white-breasted nuthatch
Nuthatches like this White-breasted Nuthatch show distinct behaviors!

Using this funnel system provides a few ways to identify the birds in your backyard. Next, you will want to practice this system as frequently as possible!

Step 4: Practice identifying different types of birds | Join a bird club

a person watches birds

One of the best ways to learn about birds is to identify them yourself, consistently and repeatedly. We encourage you to start small by learning one bird until you grasp its characteristics. Learning one bird at a time allows your brain to say, "I do not know that bird!" when you see a new species at your bird feeder.

A few delightful, social ways to practice bird identification in the field are:

  • take bird walks with friends
  • go birding at a local park or bird sanctuary
  • join a bird club like your local Audubon
  • partake in a field trip
  • invite others to watch your backyard bird feeders with you

As you continue to practice the identification of different birds, go back to your second step of noting their appearances, behaviors, and sounds. Over time, your practice will train your brain to begin seeing patterns that will help you identify a diverse number of bird species.

Step 5: Find birds in your yard | Learn when birds are active

Many different bird species visit backyards and bird feeders across North America. While some species are year-round residents, others linger only during certain times of the year. Knowing when to look for different types of birds can make birding and bird identification a lot more fun and rewarding.

female northern cardinal
Learn the ID traits of males and females like this Northern Cardinal.

Birds are also more active or noticeable at certain times of the day. During the breeding season, morning is full of the sights and sounds of birds. Both males and females can be found singing in your yard or local park, with males sometimes being far more vocal. After a night without food, birds are often hungry, so foraging for invertebrates or a quick visit to the bird feeder may be in order. Watching your bird feeders or birdbaths first thing in the morning can provide memorable moments with birds.

Step 6: All you need is a little knowledge, practice, and patience!

If you are just getting started birding, here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to identify birds:

  • begin by focusing on common bird species that reside in your area
  • learn what different parts of a bird look like, such as the head, beak, wings, and tail
  • watch how the bird moves, including how it flaps its wings and flies
  • listen to the bird's call or song, which can be a helpful identification tool
  • look for birds in their natural habitat and try to observe their behavior

With a bit of patience and practice, you will be able to begin your bird identification journey. Once you are familiar with these skills, birding will be a fun and rewarding activity that you can enjoy no matter the season!

Bring the birds home

Birding can be a fun and rewarding activity for people of all ages. By learning about the different bird species found in your backyard, you will better understand the natural world in your community. With practice, patience, and a little knowledge, anyone can become a bird identification expert!

Want to bring the birds to your home? Consider hanging a Birds Choice feeder and creating a bird-friendly home!

Bird's Choice Bluebird House