Easy Tips to Identify Common Songbirds

Magazine racks at the grocery checkout assume that celebrity watching is the favorite pastime. While this is true, it is the faces of the celebrities at the top of the popularity ladder that the publications got wrong! Bird watching is now the fastest growing hobby. So if you want to identify some real celebrities put down the TV remote and grab your binoculars. It’s time for you to be a member of the songbird press.

Birding is one of the few activities that serves ecological, activity and self-improvement goals. It can be enjoyed by anyone from the age of 5 to 95. You can log information from your window or hop on a plane and record bird migrations in India. How many hobbies offer so many choices? Jump into birdwatching at the depth and expense that suits your level and budget. You can pre-order that “5 grand” camera… or just pull out the lawn chair.

Most individuals get “into” bird watching after setting up a feeding station. Once they see the amazing variety of species winging in – it’s hard to resist getting hooked on birding. Become a helping hand to nature by setting out a few nesting houses to target your favorites during the mating season.

There are a few steps you will want to take to quickly identify songbirds. Before you hit the park or the backyard, birding becomes more enjoyable when you know what to look and listen for.

Ironically, bird watching is all about listening.

Being a Bird Detective

Sherlock Holmes was right. “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Learning to pay attention to your environment is crucial to locating the birds. If you watch other animals, they are vigilant, listening, watching and being very present in the space and time. This is key. Become a tracker and be intensely aware of your “now.” Listen for rustles, watch for moving branches, locate movement in your peripheral vision – you are now a BSI – bird scene investigator.

Once you view yourself as an integral element of nature the “loudness” of what is happening around you becomes readily noticeable. You will hear birds before you see them. Songbirds are master vocalists (listen to the song of the Eastern Phoebe)!

Birds sing to attract mates, hold territory or to find each other. Songs vary by season, daily expression and by the bird’s age. It is important to learn the variety of calls expressed by the birds that frequent your region.

Learning how and why songbirds vocalize is fascinating. Birds share the same FOXP2 gene with humans and many learn how to speak “while still in the nest, a phase known as the critical period, when nestlings listen to the adults singing around them… young birds attempt to replicate these songs, practicing until they have matched their tutor’s song. Some songbirds, such as the catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds, learn to mimic other species—frogs, cats, and even car alarms.”

Walk outside and you will hear birds warbling. Early morning and evening are “hot” times for singing, but songbirds are active during the entire day. Biologists use bird songs as the primary subject locater, identifier and as the most efficient way to record population counts. Do what the ornithologists do and record the singing. Focus on one sound at a time and notice the uniqueness of the volume, pitch, rhythm, tone and notes.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers an easy-to-use song guide identification search on their website. The site includes photos, behavior and location ranges to help you quickly locate the species recently observed. There is also a link to the Macaulay Library and its internationally renowned archive of animal vocalizations.

Tips and Tricks

Begin your birding adventure by familiarizing yourself with the various species – those likely to visit your watching spots. Most readily available bird information pertains to the United States and Canada – so a simple search will yield fast results.

Spend some time perusing through Flickr and Youtube, as these still and video hotspots will offer exciting results caught by fellow birders. Learning how to recognize bird species is just like any form of learning – never limit opportunities to pick up information. Nature shows on television often highlight birds and many public or local stations have nature programs geared to your locale.

  • Jot down and memorize bird physical characteristics (and the proper terms for these) like feather shape and color, beak shape, leg and foot shape etc. Knowing the “parts of a bird” descriptions used in the ornithological field make it easier to figure out what bird you are looking at.
  • Terms (points of a bird): crown, tufts, coverts primary feathers, rump, throat, breast, shank or wing bars.
  • Classifications. Birds are categorized into groups – this makes field identification easier. Break down your sighting into where and what. Was the bird found at the shore, in the water, in a tee, flying in flocks or soaring? Was it flying alone or in a formation? What was the bird doing… was he scratching in the leaves (Rufous-sided Towhee) or was she eating your blueberries (Catbird)?

Think about types of behavior patterns, for example:

  1. Bird of prey or scavenger – Hawk or owl versus vulture.
  2. Perching birds or walking birds – cardinal versus bobwhite or wild turkey.
  3. Water or shore bird – wood duck or loon versus grebe or sandpiper.

Once you narrow your observation down, you can find your subject: “Extremely large, long-legged grayish blue plumage and wading along the edge of a pond” = Great Blue Heron! If the bird was quite similar but all white = Common Egret

Learning bird behavior and building a knowledge database to sift through makes birding much more enjoyable and rewarding. You hear drumming on the oak tree. You know it is a woodpecker, but which one? Grab your bird book and flip to the woodpecker section. Bingo… male Downy Woodpecker!

  • Binoculars. Most of us have these on hand. They are a great tool to view birds and pick up on details such as feather patterning, color, beak shape and size.
  • Books. These old stand-bys can be picked up at yard sales or at discount online stores. A good birder’s guide is the perfect accompaniment. These offer tips and identification information. Most books narrow down the species by type and similarity – birds of prey, water and shore birds, game birds, swallows, finches, warblers or woodpeckers. This makes finding your recent sighting immediately identifiable. Cornell University recommends the following books: Birds of North America (Kaufman Focus Guides), Peterson’s Series and The Sibley Guide to Birds.
  • Clubs and Societies. Bird watching is perfect for individuals to enjoy by themselves or with a group. Visit the Internet to see if there are any bird watching or naturalist societies in your area. They will often have scheduled excursions with experts and you can pick up information from members. These societies also offer information on lectures and larger events, including international travel opportunities for birders.

Peruse online “clubs” and resources as well. Most sites allow for you to contact their experts and get one-one-advice! Your favorite birding supply stores have blogs and birders available to answer your questions and offer tips for attracting more songbirds to your yard.

More Online Resources

Visit some of the online identification guides. These guides make figuring out what songbirds are frequenting your area. Spend some time surfing these sites, because the main tip for identifying any species of bird is to become familiar with their songs, behaviors and physical characteristics. Once you know what the silhouette (birders use shape to narrow down the species) and behavior of the bird is, you will then be able to zero in on the name of the individual you are looking at.

It’s time to get bird watching!

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