Bird identification

Identifying unfamiliar, distant or briefly-encountered birds can be tough. However, there are a wealth of excellent resources to make the process easier.

Song Thrush. John Harding

Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush are a common 'confusion species' pair.

BTO Bird ID video playlist on Youtube
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Watch bird identification videos

Seeking out videos of particular species you find challenging can be incredibly useful. This is especially true if they highlight behaviours or characteristics that can help you to confirm an identification.

BTO Bird ID videos cover most of the commonly-encountered confusion species / groups, and several rarer ones, too. They incorporate video footage, photographs, sound recordings and expert commentary to help you pick out and learn the key identification features.

Do some homework

Once you have chosen a field guide, look through it regularly until you are familiar with the layout and where to find particular species / groups. Not only will this help you learn some of the identification pointers it contains but it will also make it easier for you to find your way around the book / app when you are out in the field. On that note, be sure to take it out with you!

Give yourself a head start in identification by being prepared. Doing some basic research about the species likely to be found in the habitats / areas you plan to visit, and the time of year those species are present, will narrow down the list of likely options when an unfamiliar bird pops up in front of you. If you’ve done enough research, you might recognise the species straight away, even if it is one you haven’t seen before.

With or without photos, you can get help with identification from the Merlin Bird ID app for iPhone and Android smartphones. BTO helped to develop the Britain and Ireland pack for this free and very powerful resource.

Wren. Phillip Kirk

Train your ears

Many people find identifying birds by the sounds they make to be particularly challenging. There’s no shortcut to mastering this but there are several tips that can help:

  • Try to see the bird that is making the unfamiliar sound – if you then identify it, this will help the process of remembering it for next time.
  • Describe the sound you are hearing, either out loud to someone else or in your head. Does it stay at one pitch or go up and down? Is it loud or quiet? Fast or slow? Repetitive or varied? Does it remind you of another sound?
  • Come up with your own mnemonics / funny words or phrases to help you remember particular species e.g. Collared Dove: the bored football fan “U-nite-ed, U-nite-ed”.
  • Start with a small number of species, perhaps 5 or 6 common garden / woodland birds, and work hard to commit these to memory before tackling ‘new’ species.
  • Listen to recordings, e.g. on websites such as www.xeno-canto.org. Again, start with a small selection of commonly-encountered species and try to learn these well before taking on new ones.
  • Go on a BTO Training Course!

Practice makes perfect

Whether on your own, in groups of similar ability or with an expert such as on a BTO Training course, the more you look at and listen to birds and try to identify them, the easier it becomes. Adopting a local patch and joining your nearest bird club are good ways to stay motivated and keep on learning. Becoming familiar with the birds on your doorstep will give you a solid foundation to build on when you birdwatch in new areas and habitats.