Identify a Bird in 10 Steps

Enjoy sparrows in your backyard.


Most backyard birds are easy to identify once you know what to look for. And having a field guide with you helps. But first, observe everything you can about the bird when you see it and then go back to the book. See if you can identify our “mystery bird” after you go through the steps.

Look at the size. About how big is the bird from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail? Our mystery bird, which is featured at the bottom of this post, is about 5 inches long.

What color is it? Is it all one color or several colors? Is it mostly blue, red or yellow? Our mystery bird appears to be brown on its back and grayish on its belly.

Observe the bird’s head. What color and shape is the bill? Is there a crest or a different color on its head? Does it have a ring around it’s eye? Any color under its bill? Our mystery bird has a bright, white streak over its eye, a dark line through the eye and the top of its head has a reddish cap. Under his bill is grayish.

Look at the wings. Are they pointed or rounded at the ends? Are there any markings such as white wing-bars or a patch of color on them? Our mystery bird has two white bars on its wings, but they aren’t really clear.

Look at the bird’s breast. Is it light or dark? Streaked or plain? Does it have spots? What color is it? Our mystery bird has a plain gray breast.

Look at the tail. Is it long or short? Forked or rounded at the tip? What color is it? Are there bars of white across it? Are the outer feathers white or a different color? Our mystery bird has a slightly forked or notched tail with some white edges to the feathers.

Where is the bird? Is it perched high in a tree or on a powerline? Is it flitting among thick underbrush? Is it hopping along the ground? Our mystery bird was seen under a bird feeder, hopping along the ground.

Can you see what it’s eating? Did you see the bird eating berries off a bush, eating seed out of your bird feeder or clinging to a suet feeder? Our mystery bird seems to be pecking at the ground and eating seeds from the top of lawn grass.

Other details. Is the bird exhibiting any interesting behavior? Is it flicking its tail, diving from a perch to get a bug or scratching in the ground? Our mystery bird seems pretty plain. He hops along the ground and stays hidden in the grass.

Now get out the field guide. Using the clues about our mystery bird, we’re looking for a small brown bird that mostly stays on the ground, eating seeds. Most of the small, brown birds are sparrows—a good place to start!

Now look at the range map for each sparrow. Is the bird found in your area? Which birds show a reddish cap? Which have a plain, gray breast with a slightly notched tail? Which sparrows have a bright white streak over the eye? With these and the other clues, try to guess what our mystery bird is.

Use the same steps and observations whenever you encounter a new bird that you’re not familiar with–pretty soon, knowing what to look for will become second nature!

What bird is this?

What bird is this? As you may have discovered in your research, this is a Chipping Sparrow in its breeding plumage. While similar to the American Tree Sparrow which has a noticeable dark spot on its breast, the Chipping Sparrow’s breast is a smooth gray color without any noticeable interruptions in color. Another major difference between the two species is the coloring around the eye. The Chipping Sparrow features a bold black line through the eye, while the American Tree Sparrow has some light black markings around the eye and looks completely different. What other features do you you notice between the two species? Let us know in the comments. Happy Birding!

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