Monday, May 30, 2011

Sizing up songbirds: My favorite trick for identifying birds

What's the first thing you notice when you glimpse a strange bird?

Not too long ago, I didn't know a black-capped chickadee from a Dark-eyed Junco.   Of course, I knew a hummingbird when I saw one, and I was familiar with gulls and crows.  But I spent too much time in the heart of the city, and I wasn't very good at being still long enough to really see the smaller songbirds around me.

Now, I probably recognize a dozen or more species of songbirds on sight -- sometimes just by the way they move or fly.  And though I'm not a very good "by ear" birder, I have learned the songs and calls of many of my most familiar species.

Color and movement command attention.  But are they the best keys to identification?
But a couple of unusual visitors in the past week have gotten me to thinking about the perennial bird watcher's question:  what is the best way to identify a bird in the field?  If you look around at bird books and blogs and magazines you will find endless information and advice on this topic -- much of it very good.  But, as a novice myself, I thought it might be helpful to say something about how I have learned to do it in the past year.  

So again, what's the first thing you notice when you catch sight of an unknown bird?

Probably color.  Color demands our attention.  And movement.  Location, in a tree, in a bush, on the ground.  Songs and calls.  All of these are vital clues.  But the problem is that there's so much relevant information, and often our chance to observe the bird is so brief, that it can be hard to know what we should pay attention to first.

I've learned a little trick that works very well for me, and often provides a key to figuring out a bird's identity.  It's not unique to me -- I've done a lot of reading in the past year and had the opportunity to pick the brains of people who know a lot more than I do -- but I've been able to adapt it to my area and habits.  What I've done is train myself to ask a different question first, one that's not nearly as instinctive as some of the others: How big is this bird?

Bushtits are the smallest songbirds in North America.
Among songbirds, size is crucial.  Knowing the approximate size dramatically narrows the possibilities.  Then the other things I notice -- color patterns, movement, location, song -- all become much more useful, because there are a lot less candidates to choose from.

If you're like I was, you're thinking, "How in the world do you expect me to guess the size of a bird that I see for less than a minute a hundred feet away?"  In my mind, when I started out, all small birds were "sparrows" and I was convinced I couldn't tell them apart.  Little did I know there was a whole galaxy of smaller-than-sparrow species to learn.

The trick is, you don't have to know how big a bird is in centimeters or fractions of a gram.  All you have to know is relative size.  How big is the bird compared to species you already know?  If you can place him between two species you know, then the task of identifying him becomes much simpler.

Everyone knows Robins, which makes them the perfect beginning metric for birdwatchers.
In my head, I have gradually built up a scale.  It will be a little different depending on where you live, and what birds you're familiar with.  But you don't have to know a lot of birds to start.  Two or three species is enough to start making valuable guesses about size.  (Even something as simple as "Is it bigger or smaller than a Robin?" can be very valuable.)

Crows are the largest songbirds most city-people see regularly.
For instance, in my neighborhood, the smallest songbirds around are bushtits.  (Actually they're the smallest songbirds in North America, about the size of an Anna's Hummingbird.)  And the largest songbirds are Crows.  (There are occasional Raven sightings out here in West Seattle, but they are very rare.)  Around here, if it's bigger than a crow, it's not a songbird.  You're into groups like hawks and gulls then.

My personal scale runs -- roughly -- like this:  Bushtits, Black-Capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Sparrows, Robins, Steller's Jays, Crows.   This is a pretty good scale for where I live.  Nine times out of ten, if I get a good look (or a good photo) I can pretty quickly place the bird on my scale.

So when I glimpse that unknown visitor in the cherry tree, I ask myself about his size.  I know he's bigger than a House Sparrow, not quite as big as a Robin.  Once I know that, I can easily leverage whatever other information I have -- orange chest, black head and wings, white bars on the wings -- into a good identification:  That's a Black-Headed Grosbeak.

And what could be more satisfying to a bird watcher than that?

(I'd love to hear some of your favorite aids to identification.  Feel free to leave them in the comments.)


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  1. Great post! I look forward to reading more in the future. Regarding ID, I think I tend to use behavior to ID a bird before size... That seems kind of backwards now that I think about it.

  2. An excellent post Alex! I must say that I probably look at bird size first without even knowing it but I think I rely on bird behavior more and more to begin identification.

    What type of habitat am I looking at and what is the bird doing? Most birds we observe are foraging unless it is breeding season when they are doing a lot of singing and staking out territory, etc.

    Are they foraging in trees for insects? What type of beak do they have, a pointed beak for gleaning insects from the trees?

    Is there an entire flock of smaller birds in the tall grasses foraging. Do they have conical shaped beaks for seed eating?

    Are they wading along the shore looking for food? Are they diving in deeper water?

    Once I recognized what the bird is doing, I feel like I can narrow down what type of bird it may be, then go to color, shape and bill size cues.

    Learning how different species fly is a very important skill to learn also. Many times seeing the flight pattern of birds, even from quite a distance, will tip you off to their identity. The wing-tipping soaring pattern of a Turkey Vulture compared to solid, straight, non-tilting winged pattern of a Red-tailed Hawk comes to mind. Or the buoyant, up and down flight pattern of most woodpeckers and flickers.

  3. Thanks, Larry. For some reason, I find that I usually do it in a reverse order -- I learn about the behavior of birds after I know what they are. I'm not sure why. I think foraging on the ground vs. in the trees is a big clue where I live -- I'm fascinated by the many different ways birds fly, but again, I usually pick that up after I know what they are. For some reason, I'm not as quick to pick up those clues on an initial sighting. Its something I need to work on.