Every day customers ask us here at the bird store for help in identifying birds they are seeing in their yards. On most occasions, based on the description they give us, we can easily tell them what they saw.
More importantly, though, we can teach the individual some basic bird identification skills for future use. Remember the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” When we teach customers bird identification skills, we give them the tools necessary to identify birds on their own.
Learning to identify wild birds is a lot like putting a puzzle together. You need every piece to complete the picture. Nothing is more frustrating than to discover you are missing one piece – it ruins the whole puzzle!
There are several key pieces that you need to look for when you see a new bird. On our newly designed website, jaysbirdbarn.com, we have simplified bird identification by narrowing down the process to four specific areas: size, beak, color and habitat. Believe it or not, these four categories are all you need to correctly identify the birds you are seeing in your yard. Here is a quick look at each category.
Size: I have broken this category down into four possibilities: 1) smaller than a sparrow; 2) sparrow-sized; 3) robin-sized; or 4) larger than a robin. Using size as a criterion is an important tool when identifying birds.
Beak: One of the most important pieces of information when identifying a bird is its beak. I have broken this category into the following choices: generalist, conical, slender, chisel and hooked. For example, if you see a bird with a hooked beak, you will know that it is a bird of prey. If you see a bird with a conical-shaped beak, you will know it is a seed-eater.
Color: Making a mental note of the color(s) of the bird you are seeing is extremely important, especially if it has some distinctive markings. On the website I have listed the following colors: black, blue, brown, gray, green, iridescent, orange, red, rufous (reddish-brown), white and yellow.
Habitat: The following habitats are listed: suburban, residential, grassland, oak/chaparral, pinyon/juniper, ponderosa/coniferous and riparian/deciduous trees. Many birds are habitat-specific, and rarely will you see them outside of their preferred habitat. For example, you can find western scrub-jays primarily in an oak/chaparral and pinyon/juniper habitat, whereas Steller’s jays are found in a ponderosa/coniferous habitat.
Just the other day, a customer came in and described to us a bird he wanted help identifying. I knew instantly what the bird was, but in an effort to teach the customer how to identify it himself, I walked him through the process of using the Online Bird Guide. Based on his description, we clicked on the following selections: “robin-sized,” “slender” for beak structure, “black” for color, and “pinyon/juniper” for habitat. Based on the criteria we chose, the computer came up with five different possible matches, and the bird he described was one of them – Phainopepla!
I am still working on getting a few additional species on the site, but it is close to being done. I encourage you to check it out, and I welcome your feedback on how I can make it better. Remember, the guide is specifically geared toward casual backyard birders. It contains backyard birds, not birds you are likely to encounter out in the field.