Whether you’re an experienced bird-watcher or yet to test out your new binoculars, there‘s plenty to learn when it comes to identifying the many species of birds. But you don’t need fancy equipment to try to guess what type of bird you have come across – with these handy tips (and the help of a decent bird book!) you’ll soon be able to identify the many different birds that are native to the UK.
Bird identification by size and shape
Whilst size isn’t everything, one of the easiest ways to identify a bird is by its size. This is easier said than done on some occasions, especially when it’s soaring miles above you! But a rough indication of its size is a great identifying factor and can instantly narrow down the list of possibilities. If it looks like a large bird, it is likely to be a bird of prey, such as a Buzzard or an Eagle. For smaller birds, you will have to look at other characteristics before being able to narrow the search down significantly.
Another trick for bird identification is looking at its shape. Some aspects of a birds shape to look out for include: body shape, length of neck, beak and facial features.
• If it has a long neck it may be a Goose or a Swan.
• Does it look tall? In this case it may be a Heron.
• A Red Kite is easily identifiable by its ‘V-Shaped’ tail.
• Look at the shape of its beak or bill – what could it be used for? Wading birds have specially adapted bills for their environment (which is also why they have long legs). Curlews are an excellent example of a bird with a distinctively shaped bill that is easily identifiable.
• Owls can be identified by their round faces. Swallows have long outer tail feathers which make them easily identifiable too.
Identify birds by colour
A bird’s colours are often their most noticeable features, but looking at colour is not always the most useful for bird identification. Some birds are very similar in colour, whilst in some species, male and female colouring differs – males are often brighter as they need to attract a mate. Garden birds are particularly colourful:
• The Goldfinch for example has red, black, white, yellow/gold making them very identifiable.
• In the tit family, colour, as well as size, helps to differentiate between different types: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit etc.
• The Greater Spotter Woodpecker is black and white with patches of red.
• The Kingfisher’s colouring makes it possible to spot them even in the swiftest of moments.
It is important to remember that it’s not just the colours of the feathers and the body of the bird that can be used as an identifying feature, the colour of its beak and its legs can often be used to distinguish between types of bird. The Puffin, with its distinctive brightly coloured bill and orange legs, is a favourite amongst birdspotters. Moorhens and Coots are also identifiable by their coloured beaks: the Moorhen’s being yellow and red, whilst the Coot’s is white.
Whilst birds with brightly coloured features help the birdwatcher with identification, many use their plumage to camouflage themselves, meaning that is important to consider other features when trying to identify birds.
Bird identification by their location
Where you are is often a big giveaway as to the types of bird you are likely to see. Here are some common bird locations, and types you could expect to see:
• Common garden birds you will often see include Finches, Sparrows, Tits, Blackbirds, Starlings, Robins and Wrens to name a few.
• In a woodland habitat you may see birds including Turtle Doves, Warblers and Redstarts.
• On farmland you might find Lapwings, Thrushes, Buntings and Owls.
• Near water you might find Herons, Moorhens, Kingfishers, Grebes and many more.
• By the coast and at sea there is a huge range of birds you can see, from Waders such as the Oystercatcher, to Gulls such as the Black-headed Gull and Kittiwakes, to Terns, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins.
By thinking about the habitat in which you are watching the birds, you are able to narrow down the list of possibilities and are able to more easily identify the birds you have seen.
How to identify birds by sound
It can be tricky to identify birds by their songs and calls. Some birds have very distinctive songs and calls which they use to communicate with each other. When you do know how to identify bird calls, this is a highly rewarding skill. Start out by watching and listening to birds in your back garden – you will quickly be able to recognise the call of a Blackbird and a Robin. Once you’ve started you will be able to pick up more and more sounds and will be able to identify some birds just by listening to them.
So there you have it, now you know how to identify birds in five easy steps. Now it’s time to give it a go yourself. Have fun watching and listening to the birds wherever you go! And don’t forget, if you are going on a long watch, make sure you have the appropriate outdoor clothing.