Identifying Birds on the Fly
It takes patience to identify birds. You have to take a good look at the bird as you quickly flip through the pages of your favorite bird identification guide. As you struggle with books and binoculars, try to look for a key field mark can lead to the accurate identification of the bird. Start by identifying a bird with a given family, using whatever characteristics you're able to remember about each family. For instance woodpeckers are usually black, red, and white and like to cling to the sides of trees; or sparrows are often small and brown and have a conical-shaped bill. Following that, use field marks about the feather color, behavior, habitat preference, and vocalizations to narrow your search even further. Here are some tips for identifying birds from different parts of the country.
American Tree Sparrow (Northeast and Midwest)
Maybe you've heard the phrase, "Little Brown Job" - a reference to the difficulty many people have identifying sparrows. The American Tree Sparrow, as you can tell from its name, falls into this group of birds that has perplexed many a bird watcher. However, it's possible to break down the steps necessary to identify this bird as follows: First, note the distinct combination of gray throat and breast, reddish coloring on the crown, and two white wing bars. The breast is unstreaked, but contains a central dark spot. The bill is also interesting in that the upper half of the bill is dark while the lower half is noticeably pale. Sexes are similar. In many areas, the American Tree Sparrow is only a winter resident. When American Tree Sparrows return north to breed in the spring, you may notice a different bird that arrives during the spring migration which is similar in appearance: the Chipping Sparrow. Compare these species closely, as both may have reddish coloring on their crown.
Carolina Wren (Southeast)
The biggest challenge to identifying this bird is its preference for remaining hidden in the brushy growth at the edge of your yard or in adjacent woodlands. The Carolina Wren is told by the bold, reddish-brown coloring on its upperparts, the conspicuous white eyestripe above its eye, and the cinnamon-buff coloring which adorns its sides and flanks. Like most wrens, it frequently cocks its tail upwards. Even though it likes to hide in the brushy thickets that make up its habitat, you can identify this bird by its song. Its song (tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle) is frequently repeated in woodlands and backyards throughout its range during the spring and summer. Sexes are similar.
Band-tailed Pigeon (Western)
Because its size is similar to the Introduced Rock Pigeon, some people may mistake the Band-tailed Pigeon for its more widespread cousin. However, the Band-tailed Pigeon can be distinguished by focusing on a number of key plumage traits; in time, you will be able to distinguish these two species in flight. The Band-tailed Pigeon is large pigeon and has wings with varying shades of gray (primary feathers often appear darker). The back and tail are also gray, but the tail has a terminal band that is paler in color. In adults, the undersides can have a purplish hue. Also of special note is the bill, which is dark at the tip and yellow or straw-colored at the base. Sexes are similar.
Canyon Towhee (Southwest)
Often overlooked because of its earthy colors, the Canyon Towhee has several field marks that distinguish it from other ground-dwelling birds, first and foremost of which is its size: although it has the colors of a sparrow, it is noticeably larger than typical sparrows. Next, you'll notice that its overall brownish color is accented with rufous undertail coverts and reddish crown. Paler, buff-colored underparts include a necklace of brown marks on the throat. Most birds will show a dark, central spot on the front of the breast. Its song consists of a clear, ringing series of lively chips. Sexes are similar. This species and the California Towhee were once collectively known as the Brown Towhee before scientists decided they were actually 2 distinct species.