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Field guides

Q: Now that spring is here, I’m going to get into birding. What’s the best bird identification book out there?

A: The "best" bird identification book is always a matter of choice. And I suspect that different people would give you different answers. As a beginner, though, I'd recommend that you start with a book on birds of your state or region. It can be very confusing to see lots of similar species and then find out that three-fourths of them are birds that only occur elsewhere! The Kaufman Focus Guides, Birds of North America, are specifically designed for beginning birders.  Another popular series is the Peterson's guides. My own preference is for The Sibley Guide to Birds. It is very detailed and has excellent drawings of birds in different plumages. The difference between the Sibley guide and the other two guides is more a question of display. The Peterson and Kaufman guides have lots of different birds listed on a single page while Sibley tends to put two birds per page. Sibley also has distribution maps on the pages with the bird information so you can easily see if a particular bird might be in your area.  Peterson's maps are all in the back of the book, something that I find inconvenient. I recommend that you go to a good bookstore and look through the bird guides they have so you can choose the one that would be most comfortable to you.

Once you become more familiar with the birds you’re seeing, you’ll find the All About Birds Online Bird Guide a wonderful reference for more information about each species as well as for photos and sounds of the birds.

Bird with bright red mark on its breast

Q: There's an unusual bird at my feeders. It’s mostly black and white but it has a bright red triangle on its breast. What is it?

A: I always know spring has come when I get this question. It means the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is migrating north. I can follow its migration by the emails that arrive, first from Florida and then a few days later from South Carolina or Tennessee. Take a look at the All About Birds Online Bird Guide and you’ll learn more about this beautiful migrant.


Q: Yesterday evening around dusk I watched hundreds and hundreds of birds flying over my house. What were they?

That depends on what they looked like! They could have been blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, crows, or any other number of species that flock. At the end of summer, when birds finish breeding, some species leave their breeding territories and become more social. In the evening, hundreds of birds may travel toward roosts and spend the night together.

Mystery bird

Q: There’s a bird in my yard I’ve never seen before. How can I find out what it is? 

When I see a bird I don’t know, I try to observe it as carefully as I can, looking for all kinds of clues that might help me identify it later. Sometimes I even sketch the bird or take notes to help me remember the details. If you have a camera handy, it’s a great idea to snap a picture so you can study the bird at your leisure!

Look at the bird’s physical appearance. What color is it? What do you notice about its body shape? Looking at the bill can be helpful. Is it long or short? Thick or thin? Curved in any way? Size is important too, but it can be tricky to estimate how large the bird is. It may be helpful to compare it with a familiar bird: Is it smaller or larger than a robin?

Note where the bird is and how it behaves. Does it spend most of the time on the ground? In a tree? At a feeder? Was it alone or feeding with other birds? If it vocalized, what did it sound like? These clues can help you narrow down the possibilities later.

Your location will also be an important clue to help rule out bird species not found in your region during that time of year.

Now look in a field guide for the bird you saw, paying attention to the pictures, sizes, and range maps. The best books show the plumages of female birds and juveniles, not just the males.

If you have some guesses about your bird’s identity but still aren’t sure, take a look at the All About Birds Online Bird Guide for additional clues about appearance, behavior, and sound.

For more tips about identifying birds, visit our pages about “Birding 1, 2, 3.”

It’s so satisfying to learn what a mystery bird’s name is.  Follow the steps above and I’ll bet you’ll solve a few of those mysteries.