How to Identify Birds

Birds are switching gears all across Kansas. The nesting season is almost over, and the fall migration season has already begun for some species of wild birds.

Of course, the peak migration has not yet occurred, so now might be a good time to brush up on your birdwatching skills. Here you will learn a few tricks that might help you identify birds more accurately.

All too often a field guide can be a distraction when used in the field. We tend to get stuck thumbing through pages, only to look up and find that our bird has made a rapid exit before we could zero in on the key field marks. Perhaps there is a better way….

You Will Need


  1. Take a good, long look at your mystery bird through the binoculars. Examine it systematically. What stands out about this bird? Distinctive size and shape? An area of sharp color contrast? A personality quirk? Also listen for a distinctive call or song.
  2. Continue to stare at your bird, memorizing as many details as possible, until it flies off or you think you have a clear mental image.
  3. Quickly sketch the bird in your journal, drawing the most obvious field marks first and filling in minor details last. This does not have to be a work of art, just an accurate reminder of your observations.
  4. To make identification even easier, write down your impressions of the bird’s appearance and behavior. It may also help to note the date, time, and location of your observation. (The All-Weather Birder’s Journal is set up perfectly for this kind of drawing and note-taking.)
  5. Go home and compare your sketches and notes to a field guide.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Of course, no method of bird identification is absolutely foolproof. You may not know at first what exactly to look for when you are systematically examining your bird. Developing an eye for a good field mark takes experience, and experience can only come from hours in the field.

Also keep in mind that if you didn’t see a field mark…there may not have been one! “Plainness” is sometimes the field mark you need to clinch the identification.

So if you come home with a good sketch and a few notes, but can’t put a name on the bird, don’t be discouraged. Sift through your options and determine what field marks you need to watch for in the future. With practice you will learn to quickly spot and record the characteristics that make each species unique.