by Laura Erickson

More than 50 million Americans enjoy looking at birds. In the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickenson made astute observations of birds without binoculars for a field guide. Back then, people's lives were more firmly entwined with nature than they are today, but being outdoors in natural settings and learning more about wildlife still provides deep satisfaction and even health benefits.


     Most non-birders recognize some bird species, such as cardinals, robins, blue jays and bald eagles, and bird groups, such as ducks, owls, hummingbirds and woodpeckers. But how do you identify distant creatures that won’t hold still?


      At first many will be literal “UFO’s” (Unidentified Flying Objects) or ones that got away. It takes time and practice to become proficient, but from the very start, many birds will be fairly easy to figure out using a field guide or bird identification app. Make sure yours includes all the birds you would be likely to encounter in your area. The most inclusive cover all of North America (north of the Mexican border) or half of the continent. The American Birding Association has published 15 state field guides, including Illinois and Minnesota.


     Many bird apps require you to make a guess to get started identifying a bird, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s excellent, free app, Merlin, can help you identify most birds based on answering five simple questions. Merlin can even identify photos of some birds! (


     It’s easiest when starting out to use just one field guide and/or one app—the better you know it, the faster you’ll get at finding birds before they fly off. How do you pick just one? Visit a library or bookstore where several choices are available, and look up a few birds you already know. The best guide for you will be the one that depicts those birds the way they look to your eyes.


     Bird guides are rich in characters but short on plot. Don’t read it cover to cover, but do read the introduction. Then keep it close at hand and thumb through it often. When a bird catches your eye, read the entry as well as enjoying the illustrations. Also, try to look up new birds you see to pick up on features you may not have noticed. Little by little you’ll absorb how the guide is arranged and recognize more species.


     As you look through your field guide or app, or watch actual birds, pay attention to what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls the four keys to identification: size and shape, color pattern, behavior and habitat.(


     One by one, as a bewildering array of strange birds become familiar friends, a walk in the woods or in your own neighborhood will become brighter and more joyful.

Size and Shape:

Bill and tail shape, posture and other features help even more than color. Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes are medium-small songbirds. Both have rusty tails and streaked breasts, and both can be found on the forest floor.

The Hermit Thrush is shaped like a robin, with a slender bill.

The Fox Sparrow is stouter, and has a shorter, thicker bill.

Color Pattern:

Wing bars, markings near the eye and other “field marks” can be useful, but the overall pattern of light and dark helps to narrow your choices in the first place. The Chipping Sparrow and American Tree Sparrow are small sparrows with rusty caps.

The Chipping Sparrow has a thin, black eye line and a clean whitish-gray breast. Its bill is black.

The American Tree Sparrow’s eye line is browner, matching the cap. The gray of its breast is less white, and it often has a central spot or “tie tack.” Its lower bill usually shows some yellow. American_Tree_Sparrow


Sometimes birds with very similar plumage features can be instantly recognized by what they’re doing. Eastern Phoebes and female Brown-headed Cowbirds are both dull grayish-brown, medium-sized songbirds.

The Eastern Phoebe sits fairly vertically, persistently wagging its tail. It never sits on the ground except momentarily when catching an insect.

The Brown-headed Cowbird sits more horizontally and never seems to wag its tail. It spends a lot of time on the ground as well as perched in trees.


Some birds with similar features are found in much different habitats. Warbling and Redeyed Vireos are fairly plain little songbirds.

Warbling Vireos are virtually always found along shorelines, often in willows.

Red-eyed Vireos are virtually always found in forests with lots of leafy trees. —SF☀ Red-eyed_Vireos

LAURA ERICKSON speaks for the birds. She is the author of the American Birding Association's Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota (2016)