Identifying Birds

Features to Note

Key Features

Birds are very active, so observation time can be brief. In order to look up the bird later in a field guide, the observer must try to quickly note features while the bird is in view. Wing bars, eye-lines and eye-rings, breast markings, tail spots, and bill and leg color can usually separate even very similar birds.

Illustration of common bird anatomy features
Bird Anatomy

Examples of Using Key Features To Identify Similar Birds

Eye-ring or eye-line. Determining whether the bird has an eye-ring or eye-line can help distinguish a Bell's vireo from a red-eyed vireo.

Bell's Vireo perched on a tree branch.
The Bell's vireo has an eye-ring as a distinguishing feature.
MDC Staff
A Red Vireo perched on a tree limb
The red-eyed vireo has an eye-line as a distinguishing feature.
MDC Staff

Plain wing or wing bar. Focus on the wing and determine if the bird has a plain wing or wing bar to distinguish an Eastern phoebe from an Eastern wood-pewee.

Eastern phoebe perched on a branch
The Eastern phoebe has a plain wing.
MDC Staff
Eastern wood-pewee perched on a branch.
The Eastern wood-pewee has distinguishing wing bars.
MDC Staff

Breast spots or breast streaks. Distinguishing between breast spots and breast streaks can help distinguish a wood thrush from a brown thrasher.

Wood thrush perched on a tree limb.
The wood thrush has breast spots as a distinguishing feature.
MDC Staff
Brown thrasher bathing in a puddle.
The brown thrasher has breast streaks as a distinguishing feature.
MDC Staff

Identification Clues

Every bird species exhibits its own identification clues, including size and shape, color and field marks, songs and calls, behavior traits, and habitats where they are most likely to be found. Some species can be identified from just a few clues, while others require careful observation of every detail and trait.

Size

How big is a certain bird compared to one you already know, such as a house sparrow, a robin, or a crow?

House sparrow resting on a branch.
House sparrow
MDC Staff
American robin standing on the ground.
American Robin
MDC Staff
Crow foraging for food on the winter ground.
American crow
MDC Staff

Shape

Is the shape of the bird slender like a mockingbird, or chunky like a meadowlark?

Northern mockingbird looking around while sitting on a branch.
The Northern mockingbird has a slender body.
MDC Staff
Eastern meadowlark on the winter ground.
The eastern meadowlark has a chunky body.
MDC Staff

Bill Characteristics

Is the bill cone-shaped like a cardinal's, fine as a warbler's, or thicker like a vireo's?

Northern cardinal wading in the snow.
The Northern cardinal has a cone-shaped bill.
MDC Staff
Yellow Warbler scouting its surroundings while on a tree branch.
Warblers have a fine, slender bill.
MDC Staff
A Red Vireo perched on a tree limb
The red-eyed vireo has a thicker bill.

Wing Shape

Are the wings shaped like those of a Forster's tern, a Northern bobwhite, or a red-tailed hawk?

Tail Shape

Is the tail deeply forked like that of a barn swallow, slightly forked like an Eastern bluebird, or rounded like a blue jay?

Barn swallow gliding through the air
Barn swallows have a tail shape that is easy to recognize.
MDC Staff
Eastern bluebird perched on stump.
Eastern bluebird
MDC Staff
Bluejay perched on a tree limb.
Blue jay

Tail Movement

Does the bird cock its tail up like a wren or flick its tail like an Eastern phoebe?

Bewick's wren surveying its surroundings.
The Bewick's wren cocks its tail.
MDC Staff
Eastern phoebe perched on a branch
The Eastern phoebe flicks its tail while perched.
MDC Staff

Other Clues to Identification

Knowing what to expect WHEN:

One of the clues to identifying birds is to know what to expect seasonally. For example, the chipping sparrow and the American tree sparrow look similar. Both have wing bars, eye-lines and plain breasts. The chipping sparrow, however, is a summer resident while the American tree sparrow occurs in Missouri only in winter.

Knowing what to expect WHERE:

Each species of bird is associated with a particular habitat or habitats. Habitats usually have certain vegetative or landform characteristics that provide the species food and shelter. Knowing the habitat associations of a species enables you to know where to look for it. Generally, the more habitats you visit, the more kinds of birds you will see. An understanding of habitat associations also will enable you to know what to expect where, and can, therefore, be used to identify birds.

For example, although the upland sandpiper and greater yellowlegs are somewhat similar in appearance, the upland sandpiper is found on grasslands, while the yellowlegs is usually found along shorelines when in Missouri.