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Tips for identifying species at your bird feeder with expert Donald The Birder

One of the hardest and most discouraging things for those who are birding for the first time is not being able to quickly name or identify any of the birds in their backyard.

So, to help give beginner birders some advice on how to identify birds in your backyard, we spoke to Donald Morse (aka Donald The Birder) who runs a fantastic blog aptly named Donald The Birder. Donald began birdwatching when he was only 12 years old and would observe birds while fishing and hunting with his father. His love of birds only grew from there.

Donald started his website when he was a freshmen in college around 2000 as a way to both chronicle his birding experiences and help more people become interested in birding. Here is the Q&A with Donald on how to identify birds:

What’s the very first thing a beginner should do to help him or her identify birds?

The best thing is to get out and see birds because experience is what I draw back on the most. As the years go by, you get a better feel of what birds are by watching them. Advanced birders usually cue in on field marks, but I tend to look to look at what some birders call jizz. It sounds odd, but it’s kind of like identifying a neighbor walking across the street by knowing the back of their head or the way they walk. You should get out there and look at their behavior, such as the way they fly, the way they land and the way they interact with other birds.

Should you look at pictures of common birds to memorize them?

A lot of people put an emphasis on bird pictures. At first, the beginning birder should probably look at illustrations because you can actually tell the difference in birds. In a lot of the older photographic guides, the technology wasn’t there, so they show birds in dark shadows, they don’t show plumage and they don’t show juveniles. What I found easier for beginners is to look at the illustrations in books like the Peterson Guide or Sibley Guide because there they show all the different stages and that’s how you get familiar with them. A lot of them don’t show jizz, but you pick that up when you get outside.

What are some of the characteristics you look for when identifying a bird?

It depends on your habitat. I try to narrow it down. If it’s a shorebird, they fly erratically or quickly, for example. If you’re looking at raptors, they soar. Warblers are always moving mostly. That’s how I do it. Some people do it via actual families, but I find that too difficult. I find the best way to do it is to try to narrow it down into a group of birds by habitat or behavior. The two of those go together good because their behavior depends on their environment.

How long does it take to learn how to ID common birds easily?

For the first 5 to 10 years, I was learning an awful lot. I knew my common birds, but I couldn’t show people what birds were by coming in. Practice is the best way to do it. You just have to get out there.

Do you recommend birders carry field guides when birdwatching?

At first I did, but I found when you spend more time trying to compare the bird to the books you miss out on seeing things like their behavior. I think you should create a mental picture, take notes in your head and then go back to the field guide.

What are some great resources for beginning birders who want to learn how to ID birds?

Beginning bird watchers should get as many bird guides you can afford. The Crossley Guide gives you a sense you’re out in the field because they take many high-quality pictures of the birds.

Do you still have trouble identifying birds?

I don’t think anyone becomes an expert that can identify everything. I’ve been with some world-known birders that find it hard to identify certain birds. A lot of times in the field you will see a bird that doesn’t fit any book. For example, you’ll see leucistic birds with white patches or melanistic birds with black patches and they’ll really throw you off.

What’s your final piece of advice to beginning birders?

Stay persistent and try to get out as much as you can. Eventually you’ll get better and you’ll be able to identify birds more easily. You’ll never be an expert on everything because there’s so much variety in nature, but just keep at it.

For more information on birds and to see some good pictures, visit Donald The Birder’s blog.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.


  1. I get a lot of LBBs (little brown birds). Lots of sparrows, maybe some female finches, siskins, juncos, etc. Lately they’ve been in large groups, and I can hardly tell those sparrows apart! I have had similar trouble with gulls. What are the best things to look at? I consider myself more advanced than most because I’ve watched birds most of my life.

  2. LBBs are some of the most difficult to identify, so I asked Jeremy Medina for some advice. He agreed that gulls and sparrows are very tough, but he said you should try to take a picture and compare them to a field guide later. He also said to pay close attention to the patterns on the head and face and look at maps to see what’s common in the area. Here is a recommendation straight from Jeremy: “A good book for about $20 on Amazon is: Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide by David Beadle and James D. Rising (Nov 30, 2001). Another great new book that covers both sparrow and gull identification that I own is: Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides) by Kenn Kaufman.”

    I hope that helps.

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