The Basics of Bird Identification

I may be 23, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on my hobbies. I love crocheting, baking and the occasional crossword puzzle – and I’m starting to think birdwatching is the next step in my journey to become the youngest old person ever.

I’m no bird buff as it stands, but I’m in the perfect place to become one. Door County is full of resources to help its visitors and residents become more knowledgeable about the natural world that surrounds us on the peninsula.

I discussed one such resource in an article last week: a recent Door County Land Trust webinar, led by the organization’s community conservation coordinator, Paige Witek, about bird identification. Last week, we discussed the gear Witek recommended, including binoculars, field guides and birding apps; this week, I’ll review what bird-watchers consider when trying to identify a bird.

The Birds of Wisconsin

Wisconsin is home to around 340 species of birds. Of those birds, about 50 are residents, staying in the state year-round; about 120 come in the summer to breed; about 20 come for winter; about 65 are migrants, only seen in spring and fall; and about 85 are considered rare.

Around 100 more bird species are considered “incidental” or “accidental,” appearing in the state very rarely, like the roseate spoonbill that was seen in Green Bay last summer.

With around 340 species of birds to differentiate between in Wisconsin, identification can be tricky. Becoming familiar with bird taxonomy, or the way birds are grouped together into “families,” can help narrow down your options.

Thinking taxonomically may sound intimidating, but even non-birders can do so automatically to an extent, Witek said. For instance, many people can easily tell that a bird is a woodpecker based on its shape and the way it sits, even if they don’t know what kind of woodpecker it is. Noticing a bird’s silhouette – its shape and size – can help greatly while trying to identify it.

Another way to narrow down a list of possible species is to check their range maps in a field guide or birding app. These maps show the species’ range in each season, illustrating where the bird can be seen throughout the year. Checking on what habitat the species lives in can also help rule out possibilites.

What to Look For

When trying to identify a bird, it can be helpful to take note of its beak shape.

One of the most common beak types Wisconsin birders can expect to see is cone-shaped, according to Witek. Seed-eating birds like sparrows, cardinals, buntings and finches sport this distinctive, triangular-shaped beak.

Birds in the blackbird family, like orioles, meadow larks and grackles have long, pointy beaks. The pointed end is for pecking up insects, while the strong base at the bottom is for crunching seeds.

Warblers nab insects through tree bark with slim pointed beaks. Vireos have similarly-shaped beaks, but theirs are hooked. Wren beaks look similar to warbler beaks too, but wrens are usually brown, while warblers tend to have yellow or olive coloration somewhere on their bodies, Witek said.

Male Indigo Bunting. File photo by Roy Lukes.

Noting a bird’s field marks, or distinctive markings, can aid in identification too. Here are some common ones you might find in the field as well as your field guide.

  • Stripes and streaks are similar but distinct markings. If someone were to draw a striped bird, they would make intentional marks; if they were to draw a streaked bird, they would make small dashes.
  • Capped refers to when the top of a bird’s head is a specific color, like a black-capped chickadee.
  • A superciliary stripe is a line above the bird’s eye.
  • An eye line is a line that goes “through” the bird’s eye.
  • Eye rings are full or partial rings around the bird’s eyes.
  • Spectacles are rarely-seen markings that stretch from the beak to around the eye, like glasses.
  • Stash marks are mustache-like marks commonly seen on flickers.
  • Mallard marks or mallard stripes are marks that run from the corner of a bird’s beak down to their chin or neck.
  • Ear patches are marks over a bird’s ear openings on the sides of the head.
  • Masks are markings that go over a bird’s face; the cardinal, for example, wears a black mask.