Identifying Birds

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Learn Key Features

Birds are very active, so observation time can be brief. In order to look up the bird later in a field guide, the observer must try to quickly note features while the bird is in view.

Features that are especially helpful when trying to tell similar species apart:

  • Wing bars
  • Eye-lines
  • Eye-rings
  • Breast markings
  • Tail spots
  • Bill color
  • Leg color

The diagram to the right highlights these and other important features that can help you tell birds apart. 

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Illustration of common bird anatomy features
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Using Key Features to Identify Similar Birds
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Eye-ring or Eye-line

Determining whether the bird has an eye-ring or eye-line can help distinguish a Bell's vireo from a red-eyed vireo.

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Bell's vireo
The Bell's vireo has an eye-ring that is a
distinguishing feature.
Jim Rathert
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A red-eyed vireo perched on a tree limb
Caption
The red-eyed vireo has an eye-line as a distinguishing feature.
Credit
Missouri Department of Conservation
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Plain Wing or Wing Bar

Focus on the wing and determine if the bird has a plain wing or wing bar to distinguish an eastern phoebe from an eastern wood-pewee.

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Eastern phoebe perched on a branch
Caption
The eastern phoebe has a plain wing.
Credit
Missouri Department of Conservation
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Eastern Wood Pewee
Caption
The eastern wood-pewee has distinguishing wing bars.
Credit
Jim Rathert
Right to Use
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Breast Spots or Breast Streaks

Distinguishing between breast spots and breast streaks can help distinguish a wood thrush from a brown thrasher.

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wood thrush
The wood thrush has breast spots as a distinguishing feature.
MDC staff
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Photo of a brown thrasher walking on snow.
The brown thrasher has streaks on its breast.
MDC staff
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Identification Clues
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Every bird species exhibits its own identification clues, including size and shape, color and field marks, songs and calls, behavior traits, and habitats where they are most likely to be found. Some species can be identified from just a few clues, while others require careful observation of every detail and trait.

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Size

How big is a certain bird compared to one you already know, such as a house sparrow or a crow?

Photograph of American Crow
American Crow
House sparrow
House Sparrow
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Shape

Is the shape of the bird slender like a mockingbird, or chunky like a meadowlark?

Photo of an eastern meadowlark on snowy ground, showing underparts.
Eastern meadowlark
Northern mockingbird
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Bill Characteristics

Is the bill cone-shaped like a cardinal's or small and thin like a warbler's? 

Yellow Warbler scouting its surroundings while on a tree branch.
Yellow warbler
Male northern cardinal
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Wing Shape

Are the wings shaped like those of a chimney swift or a red-tailed hawk?

Red-tailed Hawk in flight
Red-tailed hawk
Photo of a chimney swift in flight, viewed from below
Chimney swift
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Tail Shape

Is the tail deeply forked like that of a barn swallow or rounded like that of a blue jay?

Blue jay perched on a tree limb.
Blue jay
Photo of a barn swallow in flight.
Barn swallow
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Tail Movements

Does the bird cock its tail up like a wren or flick its tail like an eastern phoebe?

Photo of an eastern phoebe perched on a small branch.
Eastern phoebe
Carolina Wren
Carolina wren
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Other Clues
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Knowing what to expect when

One of the clues to identifying birds is to know what to expect seasonally. For example, the chipping sparrow and the American tree sparrow look similar. Both have wing bars, eye-lines and plain breasts. The chipping sparrow, however, is a summer resident while the American tree sparrow occurs in Missouri only in winter.

Knowing what to expect where

Each species of bird is associated with a particular habitat or habitats. Habitats usually have certain vegetative or landform characteristics that provide the species food and shelter. Knowing the habitat associations of a species enables you to know where to look for it.

Generally, the more habitats you visit, the more kinds of birds you will see. An understanding of habitat associations also will enable you to know what to expect where, and can, therefore, be used to identify birds.

For example, although the upland sandpiper and greater yellowlegs are somewhat similar in appearance, the upland sandpiper is found on grasslands, while the yellowlegs is usually found along shorelines when in Missouri.