When a mystery bird appears, whether it is at your feeder, in a local park, or at a top birding destination, it can be tough to identify the species. If you know just how to look at a bird, however, including what key features to note, you can feel confident about identifying all types of mystery birds.
Key Features to Identify a Bird
Even with just a quick glimpse, there are many key features you can use to identify a bird. Look carefully for…
While it is difficult to get precise measurements of a mystery bird, you can make general comparisons that will help with identification. Is the bird similar in size to a sparrow, robin, or crow? Is it noticeably tiny or seem overly large compared to birds you’re more familiar with? Also notice any outstanding proportions, such as whether the wings or tail are long, if the bill is clunky, or if the head is noticeably round or has a more flattened shape.
A bird’s color can be a dramatic clue to its identity, especially if the bird is sporting bold, bright colors. Look not only at the bird’s overall plumage color, but also at any notable color patches, such as on the wings, tail, or head. Contrasting color patches can be excellent clues for a bird’s identity, and note whether the edges where colors meet may be smooth or blurred. Even if the bird has bland colors, that lack of bold coloring can be a clue in itself.
If a bird has any striking markings, such as a eye stripe, breast spotting, or wing bars, those markings can help pinpoint its identity. Note the color and clarity of any markings, along with where they may start or end on the bird’s body. Check the bird’s back, tail, cheeks, eyes, and flanks for markings, and the more details you note the easier it will be to properly identify the species.
The shape and color of a bird’s bill are great identity clues. Is the bill long, thin, and sharply pointed, or is it thicker with a triangular shape? Is there a hook at the end, or does the bill have a flattened shape? Are there any spots or bands on the bill? Are the upper and lower halves of the bill the same color, or is there a color change near the bill’s base? All of these clues can help with puzzling out the bird’s identity.
Even if all you have is a rear view of a bird, the tail can provide identification clues. Note the tail’s overall length when compared to the bird’s body, and whether or not the tail has any distinctive features, such as streamers, notches, or colored bands. As the bird moves its tail, note if the end is rounded, straight, or wedge-shaped, and see if the corners or outer tail feathers may be a different color.
Even without clear views of color, markings, or other physical identification features, a bird’s behavior can provide good clues about its identity. Is the bird wagging or pumping its tail? Does it flick its wings open and closed? Does it use one foot or two when scratching on the ground? Does it stay high in trees, or closer to the ground? Is the bird comfortable in a group or acting aggressively if other birds get too close? Is it returning to the same perch over and over, or moving to different perches as it forages?
See also: Birdsong Identification Tips
The more clues you can find on one specific bird, the more comfortable you can feel about identifying it. Depending on the bird, seeing just one or two of these overall clues could be enough for a positive identification, while other birds are more subtle and additional observation may be necessary to feel secure about the bird’s identity.
More Tips and Tricks to Identify Mystery Birds
If you have a longer opportunity to observe a bird, extra clues can help you know which bird you are seeing. Even without great views or a close perspective on the bird, you can note…
Habitat – You’re unlikely to see a woodpecker at the beach, a duck on a mountainside, or a plover in the forest. Habitat, plant life, and nearby water sources can be clues about which birds are most likely to be seen.
Flight Pattern – Does the bird fly in a straight line, or does it undulate up and down? Are its wing beats rapid or slow, and does it glide and soar or flap continuously? Can the bird hover or does it dive steeply?
Song – If you hear a bird, note the quality of its calls and song. Is it melodious, or does it repeat the same phrase over and over? Is the song more of a whistle, chirp, buzz, rattle, squawk, or screech?
Food – If the bird is feeding, what is it eating? Is it visiting one type of feeder, or choosing a specific type of seed? Is the bird hawking for insects, or gleaning bugs from tree bark or leaves? Is it sipping at flowers or cracking nuts? How the bird feeds and what it eats is a great identity clue.
Flock – If the bird has company, other members of the flock might provide great identification clues. Some birds readily join mixed flocks, while others prefer their own company. Flock composition is especially important for identifying juvenile birds or birds that may have abnormal plumages, such as albino or leucistic birds.
Enjoying Unknown Birds
Sometimes, no matter how many clues you may see about a bird, it could still be impossible to feel confident with a positive identification. Don’t look at this as a problem or defeat, but enjoy the opportunity to study birds more closely and sharpen your birding skills. Consider taking a photo of the bird and turning to social media, websites, or other resources for identification help, or consult different field guides for different perspectives and identification tips. While it may not be possible to identify every bird, you can always enjoy each one and learn more about birds with every mystery bird you encounter.