Donate Index Calendar Nature Land Protection Stewardship Newsroom Contact

Beginning Bird Identification



Where to begin

There are generally five major things to consider when trying to identify birds.

1. Size & Shape are more beneficial to note then field marks in narrowing to type of bird.

2. Overall color pattern is a key to using a field guide after you have determined the type of bird it may be. An understanding of individual variation in birds and season to season changes can help identification.

3. Behavior tells a lot about the type of bird and an experienced birder can sometimes identify a species just by watching how it flies, eats, or flicks its tail.

4. Habitat is where a bird is found foraging, nesting, or roosting. The type of habitat can change based on the need, but generally you find a Nuttall's Woodpecker in oak and riparian woodlands and the very similar looking Ladder-backed Woodpecker in Mojave desert vegetation.

5. Distribution and range, birds are atypical from land based creatures being that they fly but for the most part they are found in a restricted area depending on the time of year. For example an American Pipit breeds in alpine vegetation and northern latitudes but winter in the valleys and lower latitudes. So while you wouldn't expect to see this bird in the summer in the Kern River Valley, it is common here in winter. Knowing its normal range and distribution helps to narrow the focus to more common species for your area. As the saying goes, if you hear hoof beats assume horses not zebras (unless you are in Africa!)

Size & Shape

field marks not as important
group or family bird belongs to
size and shape
compare body parts

recognize family member by height build at a distance

practice on common birds

compare to other birds that you might know


Shapes - big/small long/short

Compare birds to each other
length of bill compared to head

Bird Adaptations

Did you ever wonder why there are so many different shapes of bird beaks or feet? Beaks are multi-functional tools. Birds use them to weave nests, defend territory, attack competitors, groom feathers, communicate, and most important, to gather or capture food. The beak shape can tell you what a bird eats.

Feet also tell you a lot about a bird’s feeding behavior and also where the bird spends most of its time.

If you want to learn more about birds, pay attention to beaks and feet! Knowing these characteristics makes bird identification easy. To help you get started, here are some common bill shapes and the type of food each bill is specially adapted to eat.

Beaks (bills)


Birds eat almost every kind of food, but not all birds eat the same things. Your best clue as to what a bird eats is its bill. Bills are dining utensils. They work like hammers, chisels, pincers, nutcrackers, hooks, spears, or strainers.

Hummingbirds have long, tubular bills that resemble straws, which they use to sip nectar from flowers.

Flycatchers and goatsuckers have wide bills surrounded by a net of bristles that work to funnel flying insects into their mouths while in the air.
Woodpeckers have strong, long, chisel-like bills to make holes in trees for nests or food. 
Mergansers and herons have long bills with serrated edges and a hooked point, adapted for grabbing fish.
The edges of a duck's bill are fringed to strain plants, seeds, and small animals from mud and water.
Sparrows, finches and grosbeaks have thick, conical beaks, for cracking open the hard outer shells of seeds to reach the nutritious center.
Blackbirds, Warblers, and Meadowlarks use their long pointed bills to probe for insects.
Hawks and eagles tear prey, such as mice, into bite-sized pieces with their strong, hooked bills.
Many shore birds, avocets, and stilts have long, thin probing bills. These bills come in a variety of sizes to jab at different depths in the muck. This allows many species to live together within their own niche without directly competing for food



Feet carry birds to their food and some help deliver food to the bird. They are designed for running, perching, grasping, wading, paddling and even more.

To hold onto a twig, a passerine bird needs feet with opposing toes that wrap around the branch. Why don't perching birds fall off when they sleep? When a perching bird sits, a ligament in its feet automatically locks on the limb. With feet locked, sleeping birds don't fall. As the bird stands up the ligaments release.

Semi-aquatic Birds
Rails have special lobed feet that help them walk on top of marsh vegetation. These birds are not confined to water and walk on dry land quite well.
Long-legged birds can wade in shallow water to reach prey buried in muddy marshes. The long toes of herons and egrets support walking on mucky stream and lake bottoms.
Birds with webbed feet can paddle through the water and walk on mud. The web spreads out when pushing the foot backward providing more surface to thrust the water. When the foot is drawn forward the web folds up so there is less resistance to the water.
In open grasslands, most species walk or hop on the ground to find food.
Parrots and woodpeckers use their zygodactyl feet to climb up walls and trees. Parrots use their nimble toes to hold food and bring it to the beak. 
Hawks and owls capture, kill, and carry prey with their feet. Their recurved talons are distinctive. Owl feet are special because they can rotate one toe toward the back making them zygodactyl at will.
Partridges, pheasants, and quail use their strong feet to scratch the dirt and leaf litter to uncover seeds and insects.

Bird Topography

Bird Topography defines landmarks on different species of birds. Ornithologists (bird researchers) have named each unique part or characteristic of birds. With so many species of birds to identify, the task is daunting for beginners and seasoned birders. Becoming comfortable with bird landmarks takes practice, but is necessary to identify specific species.

Glossary of Bird Terms

Alternate - Non-breeding plumage in birds with 2-molts /year

Anisodactyl - refers the position of the toes - 3-face forward and 1-faces back. Most common

Basic - Breeding plumage.

Coverts - The small feathers covering the bases of other, usually larger, feathers.

Crest - A tuft of elongated feathers on the crown.

Crown - The uppermost surface of the head.

Eye-ring - A fleshy or feathered ring around the eye.

Eye-stripe - A stripe running horizontally from the base of the bill through the eye.

Flight Feathers - The long feathers of the wing and tail used for flight. The flight feathers of the wing are composed of primaries, secondaries, and tertials.

Lore - The area between the base of the bill and eye.

Mandible - One of the two parts (upper and lower) of a bird's bill.

Mantle - The back and the upper wing surfaces.

Mask - An area of contrasting color on the front of the face and around the eyes.

Morph - One of two or more distinct color types within the same species, occurring independently of age, sex, season, and geography. AKA: phase.

Nape - The back of the head and the hindneck.

Rump - The lower back, just above the tail.

Zygodactyl - refers the position of the toes - 2-face forward and 2-face back.

The information contained herein was written and illustrated by Alison Sheehey © 2002. All rights reserved.

BASIC BIRD INFORMATION  -  Beginning Bird Identification  -  Bird Feeding Instructions  -  Feeding Hummingbirds


Kern River Valley Birds  -  Spring Nature Festival Birds

Winter Birding Guide  -  Spring Bird Arrival Guide  -  Summer Birding Guide  -  Fall Birding Guide


Canebrake Ecological Reserve  -  Birding on the Kern River Preserve and South Fork Kern River

KRV Hummingbird Finding Guide  - Visitor and Travel Information Page


America's birdiest inland county 2010  -  Kern County 2008, America's birdiest inland county!

Kern County, America's birdiest inland county in 2007


Kern River Valley Christmas Bird Count History  - Schedule of KRV Christmas Bird Counts

Bird Banding on the Kern River Preserve and South Fork Kern River  - Kern River Valley Turkey Vulture Community Watch

Home Page | Site Map| About KRP | Education | KRP Supporters | Contact Us

Kern River Preserve • P.O. Box 1662 • 18747 Hwy. 178 • Weldon, CA 93283 • E-mail
Copyright 1998-2013 by Audubon California |
National Audubon. All rights reserved.

This site was created on October 21, 1998. Please Email to make comments or offer suggestions.