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How do we identify birds?

Editor's note: The ABA blog welcomes New Jersey birder Blake Mathys as one of a group of regular  contributors on the subject of Bird ID and field skills.  Blake is presently a professor at Stockton College in New Jersey, and is also a part-time lecturer, teaching Ornithology, at Rutgers University.

We've all had the experience of being out in the field birding, accompanied by a person with superior birding skills. A bird flies over, and you get a quick and poor look at the silhouette before it disappears into the distance. You mentally guess it was a woodpecker, but the view was so short that you can't even be sure you're in the correct family. Your birding companion quickly identifies it as a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and you stand in awe. You know what a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker looks like, having seen them various times over the years, but you just didn't see enough on this bird to come to a conclusion as to its identity. How did this person, standing beside you and obtaining the same mediocre looks, come to a definitive identification? Why is it some people are able to identify the vast majority of the birds that they see out in the field, even when conditions aren't conducive to good views and the birds are far away?

I know when I first started birding, there was only one explanation for other birders' amazing abilities: magic. How else could I explain these seemingly superhuman feats? As I've become more experienced and better able to identify birds, I've realized that magic isn't the answer (although there are still times that I wonder). Here in my first post, I would like to briefly explain how we identify most of the birds we see in the field, and I hope that my explanation will help to make the identification process a little clearer, a little easier to understand. If we know how we identify birds, we will become better at it. First, let me start with an analogy that I hope will demystify the identification process.

A friend invites you to a party. All of the guests, except for you, work for a company of a few hundred people. Upon arriving at the party, your friend begins to introduce you to people that she knows. You are taken around the room, and your friend says, "This is Mike, he works in accounting," and "Here's Shelly, she is in charge of inventory on the third floor," and so on. By the end of the night, you've been introduced to dozens of people. Are you in awe and confused by your friend's amazing abilities to identify and name people? Of course not, it can easily be explained by the simple everyday fact that your friend spends a lot of time with her co-workers, and therefore now recognizes them. This is the key to bird identification: familiarity facilitates recognition.

We recognize things and people all day, every day (perhaps not while asleep, although I suppose we recognize mentally conjured objects, and sometimes birds, in our dreams). When we see a stapler, we know it is a stapler because we have seen staplers before and know what they look like. The biggest key to identifying birds in the field is to gain that experience, to become familiar with species so that we recognize them when we see them again. We identify most birds (and most things) not by going through the field marks, but by the subconscious mental matching of what we see to what we know.

RTHA Our ability to recognize species is going to be directly correlated with how often we see them. In much of Eastern North America, the Red-tailed Hawk is the default hawk of the roadsides and field edges. We see it so often that we are intimately familiar with it, its appearance indelibly etched into our minds. These repeated experiences allow us to build up a total species appearance…not just the field guide views, but impressions of how it handles wind gusts and what posture it usually assumes while perched. Our repeated experience eventually allows us to identify a Red-tailed Hawk even when we have less than the best views. This is how the birding friend from the first paragraph identified the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: more experience allowed an easier recognition of the characters that clinched the identification. It wasn't magic; better field identification skills are attainable by anyone willing to put in the time.

I found that I became much better at identification when I started birding alone. I was forced to really look at the birds myself, to actually focus on what I was seeing instead of just enjoying a new species that someone else had identified for me. This brings up another important point: anything that forces you to pay more attention to the birds you are seeing will help to imprint their characteristics into your mind. This can be different things for different people, but photography, making sketches, and taking field notes are three things that seem obvious to me. These things force us to spend more time looking at an individual, instead of identifying it and moving on to the next one. More time creates a more complete subconscious mental impression, allowing us to recognize that species when we see it again. The best birders aren't born knowing how to identify all of the birds; they spend a lot of time and effort gaining that knowledge.

You may be thinking that this works well for Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, and European Starling, but what about Yellow Rail or Kirtland's Warbler? How can we learn to recognize species that we only see rarely (or haven't ever seen before)? The answer is that we can begin to become familiar with appearances even without field experience. Looking at photographs on the internet or studying field guides is a great way to start the process of creating a mental template. When you actually encounter a species for the first time, careful study of it will make it easier for you to recognize it again. It may be necessary to rely on field marks for the first few encounters, but then you'll get to the important stage where you recognize it. It won't be just "the stripe over the eye" but instead a general familiarity with its appearance allowing recognition, a mental shortcut allowing you identify the species even when that "stripe over the eye" (or other essential field mark) isn't visible. I hope that this idea is as encouraging to you as it is to me; identifying birds in the field, no matter your level of expertise, is mainly about experience and familiarity, not about memorizing every field mark in those field guides on your shelf. You are already able to successfully recognize your friends and family; just remember: being certain of that difficult and distant field identification uses the same mental machinery.

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Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers in 2010, studying evolution of birds introduced to islands. His field work was in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Trinidad, and was complemented by museum research. Prior to graduate school, he worked with Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows in Everglades National Park, as a hawk counter in Washington State, on the Farallon Islands studying Northern Elephant Seals for PRBO Conservation Science, and sampling fish for the Ohio EPA. Blake and his wife Dimitria recently moved to Ohio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. Aside from birds, he maintains a fascination with salamanders, mammals, and anything else with a backbone.
Blake Mathys

Latest posts by Blake Mathys (see all)

  • Elena Tartaglia

    The first paragraph sounds just like every birding trip I’ve ever taken with you.

  • John Kuenzli

    Great first piece! Your thoughts sound a lot like the approach Richard Crossley takes in his new field guide series. I haven’t bought it yet, but I will soon. Crossley gives a nice synopsis on youtube:

    I look forward to hearing more from you!

  • It has been years since I have seen a Fox Sparrow. Today I saw one and knew instantly what it was and even which race it was, all thanks to my continual reading of birding blogs. I have seen Fox Sparrow photos quite a bit recently and so when I saw one in person it was an immediate register in my brain. Whether it be studying field guides or the Crossly ID guide or photos on blogs, it all serves to better our skills. It is the amount of time and effort we put in that makes magic happen.

    I look forward to your future posts on the ABA Blog!

  • Thanks for your comment. I remember a conversation I had with my birding friends once; I asked: “If you quit birding, how long would it take to forget what a Bufflehead looks like?” Although it seems impossible, it would happen eventually. The key is to keep remembering, through field experiences and any other means available (books, internet, etc.); anything to remind ourselves. As long as we keep doing that, most identifications will be as easy as recognizing an old friend.

  • Holly Vuong

    You’re ruining the magic of birding by telling all the secrets behind it…hahaha j/k. I definitely agree that spending the time to see the birds and actually adding them to the memory is an important part of being able to identify birds. I guess I should go out and bird more often, huh? =D Good job on the piece.

  • Connie Sandlin

    While on a Caribbean cruise, I saw a bird flying next to the ship and immediately knew, without having to think about it, that it was a Masked Booby. This was a species I’d never seen before. I shocked and amazed myself by knowing what it was, then reflected that the knowledge came from years of thumbing through my field guides and absorbing information without being consciously aware of it.

    I’ve since moved to Costa Rica (nearly 3 years ago) and am finding that frequent scanning of my field guide is helping me here in the same way – jump starting me to identification of species. A Turquoise-browed Motmot came into view for a few seconds recently and I instantly knew what I was seeing.

    And, it WAS a Masked Booby and I had lots of fun watching it soar on the slipstream of the ship’s bow wave, diving to catch flying fish as they leapt out of the water.

  • Brett Walker

    I was sitting on a pier on the west shore of Lake Tahoe when a Merlin flew by, but it started singing just like a Cassin’s Vireo, which seemed really odd. Suddenly I woke up from the dream, and a Cassin’s Vireo WAS singing right outside the window of my cabin. That was the moment when I knew I had become a birder. I had spent enough time listening to Cassin’s Vireos singing doing point counts in the Sierra Nevada that I was able to ID it while still asleep and dreaming. A perfect illustration of the power of familiarity.

  • Ai Wen

    “If you quit birding, how long would it take to forget what a Bufflehead looks like?” This is a good one. Back to when I was surveying birds five out of seven days each week, I would laugh at that question, because I would think how in the world someone could forget what a bufflehead looks like. But now after the dissertation is done and I am only close to open water once in 1-2 months, every time I see a bufflehead, I have to check a bird book to make sure that it’s not common goldeneye or, as I feel ashamed to admit, a hooded merganser (yep, I confused those two last fall when I was birding). So you are quite right, birding is not like swimming that you can keep the skill for a lifetime once you learned it. It has to be stewed on slow fire to keep warm 🙂

  • Blake, I really enjoyed your discussion of this topic. Ironically, Ann Nightingale and I have been kicking around a draft of an article on this topic since last February. It quickly slipped off my front burner, so Ann finally put the finishing touches on it last weekend. We posted it to the online journal ( on 20 June. In the process of poking around, Ann came across this piece, which shares some remarkable similarities to our spin on this topic. In editor’s note at the end of our article, I’ve included a link to this article, with the strong recommendation that folks read both.

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