Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish one species of bird from another. However, there are some specific features to look out for which can help with identification.
Comparing the size of a bird with others that you can positively identify may help to determine the species. Alternatively, if there are no other birds around, think about how it compares with some of the more common one. Is it the size of a pigeon, for example, or smaller, like a robin?
Take care when estimating how big a bird is when it’s in flight or when the light is poor, as this can prove unreliable.
When attempting to identify an unfamiliar bird, making a note of its colouring can be very helpful. Note as many details as you can, including the colour of under parts, wings, back, tail and the head. Any bright patches are important indicators, as are distinctive markings such as stripes and their location on the bird?s body. Also look for variations in colour depth. For example, are the wings lighter at the tip?
Always keep in mind that variations in light can alter the appearance of the bird, as can wet or damp feathers. Plumage can vary between seasons and it can also depend on the age of the bird.
Another major feature to look out for is the shape of the bird. Think about which other species have a similar shape and pay particular attention to the bill and legs.
Look to see if the bird has webbed feet or talons, as well as noting how long and what colour the legs are.
The shape and length of the bird?s bill will provide a further clue. Small birds with short, stout beaks, such as sparrows or finches, will usually be attracted by wild bird seed. Those that are slightly larger, with hooked-shaped bills, are likely to be birds of prey.
Other Ways to Make Identification Easier
Record sightings in a notebook, providing as much detail as possible.
Listen carefully to the bird?s call. Often these are very distinctive and will differentiate one type of bird from another similar-looking one.
Before visiting a site, do some research. Which species have been observed there in the past? This will give you some idea as to what you might see.
Consider working with a mentor who can offer advice and share knowledge and experiences with you.
Learn the specific names for the various parts of a bird. This is not only useful for writing detailed descriptions, but will also help you to accurately describe what you have seen to fellow enthusiasts. They may then be able to offer some idea as to what you have seen.
Become familiar with local birds. Put out some wild bird seed to attract them to your garden, where you can observe them and their behaviour. You can then take this knowledge with you on a local bird-watching adventure. Less common birds in the area will be easier to spot if you are already aware of the common ones.
Finally, be patient. Bird watching requires a good deal of practice but the more skills you can master, the more pleasure you will get out of it.