Bird ID Skills: Field Marks That Every Bird Watcher Should Know

August 27, 2021

There are over 800 species of birds within the U.S. and Canada. And that can be overwhelming for a new birdwatcher. Knowing the basics to at least narrow down the birds you are seeing can help even the most beginner bird watchers.

Where Not To Start

Specific details within their plumage commonly identify birds. Those field marks are essential, but only once you have narrowed down your search. Once you know your bird basics, you can begin to get specific in the identification process.  

Related: How to Start Birdwatching

Beginning Bird Identification

Before you can get into your field marks as a way to identify birds, you will want to narrow it down with a few basics. These main categories narrow down your bird by shape, color, and location. 

After you narrow down the species, it will make it easier to identify the bird via field markings. 

Primary Identification Keys of Birds

These four key identifying features are your first step to narrowing down the bird. 

Size

Most birds are separated into one of three size categories- small, medium, and large. Using things you already know can help you better reference birds. Such as is it smaller than a pencil or larger?

Field guides will often offer the length of a bird from the tip of its bill down to the tail feather tips. Just remember that a bird that's hunched over will appear shorter than it is. 

Tail-feathers 

Looking at the shape and length of the bird's tail feathers can help you to identify a bird easier. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to make the identification process easier:

  • Is the tail long or short?
  • Round or forked?
  • Is it a solid color?
  • Is it the same color as the body?

Range

While there are some cases where you can find some birds outside of their usual range, however, it's not common, and if you spot a bird that doesn't live anywhere near you, then it might be a misidentification.

Related: Bird Behavior: How to Identify Through Behavior

Once you have looked at the introductory features, you can move on to narrowing down the details by looking at the field markers of the bird. There may be more than one that is in the same family or close to the same description, but through these identification methods, you will be able to identify the bird further. 

Are you reading to learn more about identifying birds? BirdBot is a great place to learn more.

How Field Marks Help You to Identify A Bird

Field marks are distinctive markings that help you identify birds. These can be stripes, spots, colors, patterns, and highlights that can help you to identify individuals within the same area. Some studies believe that birds have developed these markings so that they can easily identify one another from others within the same species. 

If you are new, you might want to learn more about bird anatomy before heading out into the field. This knowledge will make it easier to notice some of these subtle changes. 

Some essential bird parts you should know about are:

  • Beak or Bill
  • Head
  • Back 
  • Throat
  • Breast
  • Tail
  • Wings
  • Legs

Head Field Marks Of Birds

When you run across a new bird, take note of its head. Its beak is a perfect starting clue to narrow down what family the bird is in, but you should also take note of any other helpful field marks. These key markings will help you to identify the species and the individual further. If you keep a bird journal, take notes of each head marking. 

You'll want to look for:

  • Whisker mark. These are also sometimes called a mustache or malar stripe.
  • Eyebrow stripe. These superciliary markings are always over the eye. 
  • Eyeline. Any marking that goes through the eye. 
  • Eyering. This refers to any ring of color around the bird's eye.
  • Iris. The color of the eye itself. 
  • Beak Color. This includes both upper and lower beaks.
  • Lore Color. The lore is the area between the base of the bird's beak and its eye.
  • Throat Patches
  • Crown Stripe. Look at the number and color of stripes that are in the midline of the head. 
  • Crest. If your bird has a crest, pay attention to its color and shape. 

Wing Field Marks Of Birds

The wings of birds are another great place to narrow down your bird's identity. Some birds have very distinctive wing markings that can be noticed even after a post-season molt. On the other hand, some birds like sparrows don't have any wing markings, which is an important feature. 

Ducks, raptors, and other birds may only show off their distinctive markings when they are in flight, and their wings are open during flight.

Here are a few wing markings that you might see:

  • Primaries. These are the long-flight feathers that are on the outer side of the wing.
  • Secondaries. These flight feathers can be found on the inside of the wing.
  • Speculum. A patch of colored secondaries is mostly used in identifying ducks.
  • Wing-bars. Stripes that run across the wing when it's folded.
  • Wing lining. These feathers cover the underside of the wing. 
  • Wing patches. Blocks of color that is found on the wing.
  • Wingtips. Color that appears on the tips of wing feathers. 

Related: How Do Birds Provide Ecosystems Services?

Bird ID Tips

If you are using a guide or a booklet out in the field, look through the entire guide first. Sometimes it is easy to misidentify similar species.  

The bird might not match the image that is in the book. Because just like people, they will have their own unique variations and markings. Yet if you have a ninety percent match, you most likely have the right bird.

If you have it narrowed down, but you're still not sure, check another source. Every guide has unique information. 

Misidentifying Birds

Even experts make mistakes, so it's all a part of the learning process as a beginner. Don't worry too much about misidentifying birds. Just keep learning, and you'll get better the more you do it. 

Final Thoughts On Bird Field Marks

Now you know how to identify birds better using field markers. Grab your favorite binoculars and a good field guide and go bird watching. We also recommend taking a notebook and note the different birds in your favorite areas. 

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