The Best Tools For Identifying Birds

Four great ways to figure out the species of an unknown bird.

Identifying Birds Isn’t Always Easy

I’ve been birdwatching for several years, and I still frequently have trouble confidently identifying all of the birds that I see.

Sometimes I’ll only see a brief glimpse of a bird. Other times, I’ll get a good view, but won’t be able to tell apart two similar looking species.

When I first started birdwatching, it was even harder, because almost every bird I saw was new to me.

Fortunately, there are a lot of great tools available that have helped me along the way. Whether you’ve decided to pick up birdwatching as a hobby, or just want to identify the feathered friends in your backyard, these tools are the best place to start:

Merlin

If you’re trying to identify a new bird, the Merlin Bird ID is hands down the place to start.

Merlin is a phone app developed by Cornell Labs, the same group that created the popular bird tracking website eBird.

It uses your current location to help narrow down the most likely birds in your area. (It also has a function to manually set location, in case you want to use the app after you get home.)

Merlin then asks a series of basic questions about the bird you saw, and finally presents you with a list of pictures of the birds that best fit your description.

If you’re close enough to the bird to get a picture on your phone, you can also search using that photo.

I’ve found the app to be easy to use and surprisingly accurate.

Field Guides

If you prefer a more old-fashioned option, try purchasing a field guide for your state or region.

Before I switched over to Merlin, I relied on Stan Tekiela’s guides. I like his guides because they’re organized by color, which makes them very intuitive to use.

There are plenty of other good guides as well, but which guide is best will generally vary based on your location. It’s best to check the reviews or ask local birders for their favorites.

For new birdwatchers, it’s important to avoid the national field guides. You may be tempted into buying one of these because they have such a large quantity of birds. Having so many birds in one guide is actually a bad thing for new birders though.

If your field guide is packed with birds that aren’t in your region, you’re more likely to falsely identify the birds you see (or at least take longer getting to an accurate identification.)

It’s much easier to use a local field guide which will narrow the list down to birds that are known to be in your region.

A Camera

I like to always bring a camera with me when I go birdwatching.

The main reason I bring it is just to have fun taking photos of the birds, but it’s also proven to be a useful tool for identification.

Sometimes, I’m just not able to identify a bird on my own. If I can get a picture of it, I’m able to spend time online later, browsing eBird and trying to figure out what it was that I saw.

If I still can’t figure it out on my own, I post the picture to reddit.com/r/whatsthisbird, a subreddit on which birdwatchers help each other out with identifications. I normally have an answer within hours.

Fellow Birders

Lastly, don’t be shy about asking other birdwatchers for help.

If you’re in a popular birding spot, you’re bound to run into a few other birdwatchers on your day out.

Birdwatchers may be an odd bunch, but they’re typically friendly and happy to help out newcomers.

They’re likely to be familiar with the common birds in your location and often won’t have any trouble helping you with an identification.

Keep identifying all the birds you see, and soon you’ll notice that it starts to get easier and easier. Before long, you’ll be the seasoned birdwatcher helping out newbies. Happy birding!

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at ko-fi.com/benyaclark.

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