© Martha Allen
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Most people run for a field guide when they see an unfamiliar bird, even those of us who know better. The best thing to do when you spot a bird you don’t recognize is to quickly write down everything you can about the bird, preferably while you are still looking at it.
Draw a quick sketch that allows you to point to different parts of the bird and label colors or features. For example, point to the top of the head and write down any coloring you observed on the head. Having the sketch will help you think of all the different parts of the bird to describe. Only after you have written down all that you can remember is it time to consult a field guide.
The Common Feeder Birds Poster (shown at left), which participants receive in their project kit, features paintings of birds most commonly seen at feeders in winter. A mini version of the poster is available for download free. For a more complete bird guide, consult a field guide, such as the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds online guide.
If you were able to take a photo of the bird, you can submit the photo to the Cornell Lab’s Merlin app for instant identification assistance. The app will narrow down the options based on where the bird was seen and any additional details you are able to provide, even if it can’t make a definite identification based on the photo.
If after consulting these resources, you are still unsure of a bird’s identity you can:
If you are new to birding, start slowly. Study the birds at your feeder until you can identify them at a glance. Then gradually add more birds to your repertoire, always taking time to study them and learn their nuances. Sparrows, shorebirds, and gulls tend to be the most difficult; you may want to save those for last. Even the best of birders are unable to identify every bird they see. Sometimes a bird is in a transitional plumage, or a view of a bird might be too brief or distant to identify reliably.
Learn more about bird identification on the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds web site.
Take the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy Feeder Bird Identification course. When you purchase that course, you will also receive a free season of Project FeederWatch.
Some bird species, such as Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, are extremely difficult to tell apart. Visit the Tricky Bird IDs page for help with these particularly challenging species.
All new FeederWatch participants receive a full-size poster of birds commonly seen in winter, depicted in their winter plumage. The miniature version of the poster below is similar but with fewer species and smaller illustrations.
The Common Backyard Hawks and Falcons of North America poster features hawks and falcons most commonly seen at feeders. The illustrations were painted for Project FeederWatch by Jessica French.
Our Hummingbirds of North America poster features illustrations by Megan Gnekow