12 different birds, in silhouettes
Bird size, shape, and posture are key identification features. Cornell University.

Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

For beginning birders, listening to experienced birdwatchers effortlessly differentiate between a Carolina and a black-capped chickadee, compare their life lists, and discuss their travels to see specific bird species can be daunting. But enjoying watching birds doesn’t need to be complicated, especially if we start with the birds in our own backyards.

My philosophy around landscape plants is, “You know what you grow.” That applies to bird identification, as well. At the outset, it’s easier to learn to identify birds that we see on a regular basis than it is to identify rare or exotic birds. Learning about birds in our own vicinity also hits one of the key factors in species identification: habitat.

Habitat is where a bird lives. Since the Atlantic migratory flyway passes through Georgia, many different birds may visit our backyards, at least temporarily. Spring migration season is March 1 to June 15, and fall migration is August 1 to November 15. In the Georgia mountains, however, we are unlikely to see tufted puffins or other Pacific Northwest seabirds at any season.

Once geography is established, habit includes where the bird spends its time. Does it nest on the ground or high in a tree? Does it feed along the lake edge or hunt insects in a meadow?

An image of North America divided into four sections based on the flyway regions.
Many species of birds pass through Georgia along the Atlantic Flyway each spring and fall. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Size, shape, and posture are key identification clues. Think about how birds look in profile when they’re perching or standing. Is the beak long and slim, or short and stout? Is there a crest on the head? How long are the legs and tail? How does it compare in body size and build to a bird you are very familiar with?

Behavior and activity help identify bird species. If the bird clings to a tree and hammers the trunk with its beak, woodpecker is a good starting point. A dark-feathered bird eating the dead racoon in the road could be a vulture or a crow; use size and shape to hone that preliminary identification. Notice how birds move. Some strut while others hop along the ground. Some soar or glide in flight, while others constantly beat their wings. Geese and ducks fly together in a V formation. Starlings mob as hundreds, creating a bird cloud that swoops and turns as a unit.

Field marks and color can start and finish the bird identification process. While color may be the first thing we notice, males and females of the species – as well as juveniles – may be different colors. Field marks are color patterns or features – a white ring around eyes or neck, a contrasting patch on wings or throat, or stripes and streaking – that point to a specific type of sparrow, hawk, or woodpecker.

Sounds and signs are also useful for identifying birds we can’t see. It’s hard to mistake the call of a bobwhite or whip-poor-will, and parallel strands of shallow holes ringing the bark of trees is a sure sign that sap suckers are nearby.

Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/) is an excellent resource for learning and confirming bird identification. In the field, their free Merlin Bird ID app is great for beginners. 

Start practicing your bird identification skills this weekend, then join the Great Backyard Bird Count (https://www.birdcount.org/) in February to help scientists track bird populations around the world. All you have to do is spend 15 minutes between February 16-19, 2024, observing birds in your back yard and use the Merlin app to help identify all the birds you see or hear.