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 bid 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:
Find knowledgeable birders in your community to help. Call a local nature center or Audubon group and ask for someone who is familiar with local birds.
Send your sketch or photo of the mystery bird to Project FeederWatch for assistance. Be sure to include the following helpful information:
a description of the bird
location (city and state or province)
a description of the habitat in which you found the bird
any behavioral observations, including feeding behavior and type of food consumed
which species the bird associated with
the size of the bird in comparision with a common bird
Learning to identify birds
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.
All new FeederWatch participants receive a full-size poster of common feeder birds (similar to the small version above but with eastern species on one side and western species on the other) as well as a calendar, a bird feeding handbook, and the FeederWatch annual data summary, Winter Bird Highlights. See the Research Kit for new participants.
Hummingbirds of North America featuring illustrations painted by Megan Gnekow
By reporting which birds come to your feeders from November-April, you provide vital information to scientists studying winter bird populations. Slow down and watch the birds. Join Project FeederWatch.