How to Use a Bird Field Guide

Some of the most common questions I get from beginning bird watchers are:

“Why are the field guides so hard to use?”

“How do you know where to start looking in the field guide?”

“How are the birds grouped in this book? By the time I start at the beginning of the bird book and page through, I’m so confused I can’t even remember the field marks of the bird I’m trying to identify!”

 Learning how to group birds by visual clues can go a long way in helping you identify a bird and give you a clue as to where to look in your field guide.  The following information can be applied to any field guide you may have.  I am going to attempt to give you the clues you need without using scientific terms that may confuse the beginning bird watcher. 

 The first group of birds would be the “swimmers”.   These birds are generally found swimming in lakes and other waterways.  Sometimes they can be found grazing around the lakes, but then their webbed feet are usually obvious. This group would consist of the geese, swans and ducks.  See how easy this is?  Your first visual clue, “they are swimming” or “they are on shore but have webbed feet” has eliminated most of your field guide.

 The next group of birds you can indentify by visual clues would be the “aerialists”.  These birds are most often seen flying near or over water.  Most of these birds are fish eaters and can be seen diving, skimming the top of the water, and then returning to the air.  Your visual clues would be the water and the fact that they are flying over and not swimming.  This clue would lead you to the gulls, terns, shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses.

 You have noticed a bird wading near the shore.  What visual clues should you use to help you find them in the field guide?  Look at the legs, are they long or short?   Can’t see the legs?  Look at the neck, is it long or short?  “Long legged waders” will be the next group we will learn about.  The visual clues would not only be the long legs, but also the long necks and of course the fact that they are close to shore and wading, not swimming. Turn to the herons, cranes, egrets, ibis and the storks in your book.

 As long as we are on the shore, the next group would also be waders, but, you will notice they are considerably smaller than the “long legged waders.” The neck is more in proportion with the body.  The legs are long for a bird, but not as long as the last group we discussed.  These waders would be the plovers and sandpipers.  To further separate these waders, look at the neck again.  The plover’s necks are more compact and they have a bill like a pigeon.  The sandpiper’s neck is slightly elongated and the bill is pointed, more like a woodpecker’s. 

 Are you starting to get the idea?  By learning what visual clues to look for you can eliminate many pages of your field guide.   This makes your bird identification easier, your birding trip more fun, and you a success!

 The next general group would be fowl-like birds.  These birds would have a chicken-like build. They can have short tails or long pointed tails. They are often thought of as game birds as most of this group is hunted. You will find these birds in fields and open woodlands.  These birds prefer to walk and quite often try to run away from danger with flight being a last resort.  This group consists of turkeys, pheasants, grouse, partridges and quail.

 The birds of prey are a group that is often seen soaring in the air or perched on telephone poles or fence posts.  Look for hooked beaks and strong legs and claws.  This group consists of the hawks, owls, eagles, falcons and vultures.  This is a probably one the easiest groups to pick up visual clues on, but every bird watcher has had that moment when a mourning dove pops up and your thoughts turn to falcon not to dove.

 Next are the nonpasserine birds.  These are land birds and consist of the kingfishers, pigeons, doves, parrots, cuckoos, roadrunners, nighthawks, hummingbirds and woodpeckers.  These birds are more noted for having calls rather than melodious songs.  Visual clues would be the land habitat.  A visual clue for the pigeons, doves, nighthawks and hummingbirds would be short legs and small feet. Woodpeckers and roadrunners are so specialized in appearance and habitat that these birds are some of the easiest to classify into groups.

 The last group I will discuss in this article will be the passerine birds.  This group covers about half of the birds in the world. These are considered perching birds.  They have three toes directed forward and one toe directed backwards making it possible to perch upon vertical surfaces such as tree branches.  These birds are the songbirds.  Your visual clue will be this group of bird’s ability to land on narrow surfaces such as tree branches or wire fences and audio clue of melodious song.

 I realize that I have not covered every group or family of birds in this attempt of basic bird classifications, but I hope that I have helped the beginner bird watcher at least turn to the right section of their field guide.  Remember: Relax!  Not even the most experienced, professional ornithologist can identify every bird every time.  You will learn something every time you go bird watching, and that is what makes birding a lifelong activity.