So, you just saw a bird.
Somewhere in between binge-watching Tiger King, obsessively checking social media and the news, and battling bouts of existential dread, you found some time to stare out the window. And lo and behold, there it was: a bird.
Trouble is, you have no idea what kind of bird it is. How do you figure that out?
Your first instinct is to snap a picture with your phone, but you quickly learn one of the great truths of bird photography: It can be super hard. You manage only a couple shots of a brownish blur before a shaking, empty branch is all that’s left.
Next up: Google. But nothing you search—brown bird; medium brown bird; medium brown bird beautiful—turns up the one you saw. It appears you’ve hit a dead end. Then, suddenly, you remember: Didn’t your friend from college used to go birdwatching? You start tapping out a text message but quickly realize you aren’t giving the recipient a lot to work with. There are, after all, quite a few species that could qualify as a medium-size brown bird.
As the designated birder in most of my friend groups, I’m here to help. I get several of these “I saw a bird!” texts each month. In fact, I’ve noticed a sharp upswing now that we’re all stuck at home and more people are taking interest in the natural world around them. The work I do for Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative is built around the idea that the birds people see every day can unlock a deeper appreciation of the incredible avian world around us, so it’s been inspiring and fun fielding these inquiries during such dire times. It’s also been a good reminder that, when you’re new to observing birds, they can be really challenging to describe. I’ve come to recognize some key details that can go a long way in helping a birder narrow down an ID. Here’s a basic guide to get you started.
This is one of the simplest but most important things that people overlook when talking about a bird they saw: Where were you? I mean that both at a large scale—which city or state—and at a more local level. Were you at home, downtown, at a park maybe? If so, in the woods or by the water? Birds have ranges, or regions where they are able to live, such as the Southwest or the East Coast. Similarly, they tend to stick to specific habitats. For example, shorebirds like American Avocets are generally found near water. Other species, like House Sparrows, thrive in concrete jungles. A little information about where you were and what the bird’s habitat looked like can narrow down the possibilities very quickly.
Timing is another important factor. If you’re wondering about a memorable bird you saw a while back, what month was it? Many birds migrate twice each year, sometimes covering huge distances. As a result, the birds that you can see in an area are constantly changing. Also, different birds are active during different parts of the day, so it’s good to mention what time it was. Many birds are most active in the early morning hours. Others, like the American Woodcock, begin their spring mating dances at dusk. These are key details that help frame the encounter for your birder friend.
People tend to underestimate how helpful even basic descriptors of appearance can be when trying to identify a bird. Odds are, if a detail stuck out to you, it also stuck out to the naturalist who named the species. For example, Northern Pintails are a type of duck with, you guessed it, a long, pointy tail. Don’t be afraid to sound silly when describing noticeable features.
In terms of shape, keep it basic. Was it chunky? Was it skinny? Did it have a big head? A long beak? Long legs? Was it a ‘borb’ or a ‘floof’?
Size can be difficult because it’s relative. A quick fix is to use what you know as a benchmark. Was it bigger or smaller than a pigeon or a crow? If birds are a difficult comparison, try other familiar objects—was the bird bigger or smaller than a grapefruit? Was it around the size of a football?
Color can also be hard. A bird’s plumage (its visible feathers) in many cases changes with age and throughout the year—another reason timing is an important detail. And some plumage is iridescent, meaning that the coloration can differ depending on the lighting. Still, overall notes on color are always helpful. If a bird looked mostly yellow, red, white, or brown, that still helps with identification. Also, note any splotches of color that stand out. For example, there are a bunch of black birds, but if you spot one with a patch of red on its wing, that detail is very helpful in identifying it as a Red-winged Blackbird. (Or, if you’re in California, it could be the similar-looking Tricolored Blackbird. Remember: Setting matters.)
You don’t have to be a behavioral ecologist to notice that the bird was swimming, but that detail alone can quickly cut down the possibilities. Even better: Was it in a lake or on the ocean? Similarly, was the bird out back in a tree or on the ground? Did it move around a lot or sit mostly still? If it was scooting headfirst down a tree trunk, you may have been watching a nuthatch species forage for seeds and insects. Here’s another big one: Was it in a group or all alone? Some birds are gregarious, tending to socialize and live in groups, whereas others are solitary. Use your hearing, too. Was it singing or silent? While birding by ear is a learned skill, some birds make distinct sounds that are dead giveaways. If it was mewing like a cat, for instance, it was probably a Gray Catbird. These kinds of observations—especially combined with the bird’s appearance and setting—will help your birder friend to narrow things down.
But now that you know what traits to look for when describing a bird, I have a proposal: Consider skipping the text to your friend and sleuth out the ID yourself—one of the best parts of birding, a little thrill we birders are always chasing. Entering some of those same details into Audubon’s free bird guide app can help you narrow the spcies down, and this lineup of common birds will help you recognize species you probably encounter every day. Soon, with a little practice, you might even become a binocular-toting birder yourself.
Just be warned: Once that happens, the "I saw a bird!" texts aren't far behind.