Birdwatchers usually carry four tools when birdwatch – binoculars, a notebook or journal, a camera, and a field guide. If you are new to birdwatching or just starting to get more serious, field guides are invaluable tools but can also be very overwhelming. Here are some tips on how to use a bird identification field guide.
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How to Identify Birds Using a Field Guide
1. Study your field guide before you head to the field. While most bird guides are similar there can be subtle differences in how they are set up. One thing that remains consistent is that every field guide will have a “how to use this book” section. Read the how-to and spend some time getting to know how your guide is set up before you ever use it to identify a bird.
2. Use the field guide maps and/or use a regional field guide. Here in North America, you can purchase field guides that cover the entire continent. You can also buy Eastern North American and Western North American guides. Additionally, some US guides are available regionally and you may be able to find guides by state as well.
The maps in the guides will help you to rule out species based on your location. There are some birds that you will not be likely to see based on your location and climate. Also, be aware that regional or state-based guides will only include species that you will be most likely to see and not all of the birds that you could see.
3. Learn to identify bird groups. Knowing a bird is brown or grey is not as helpful as knowing it is a brown owl or a grey duck. Most field guides place birds in the same taxonomic group or bird family together. If you can narrow down the bird to a specific family you will be closer to making a specific bird identification.
4. Consider the season. Many birds migrate which means you simply won’t see them during certain seasons. If you have narrowed your options down to a few species, checking their common location during the current season may help you make a more accurate ID.
5. Don’t be so quick to pull out your field guide. When you spot a bird whose identification you are unsure about it can be tempting to immediately pull out the field guide and start looking for a match. But you only saw the bird for a few seconds and now you are looking at hundreds of photos or drawings of other birds. All of those identifying characteristics will be quickly replaced and confused with the characteristics of other birds.
Instead of pulling out your field guide, grab your notebook or journal. Make a quick sketch of your bird and note the characteristics such as size, color, behaviors and field marks. Your drawings don’t have to be masterpieces – just enough to help you make an ID later on.
When I go birding I will usually spend about 60% of the time in observation and 30% drawing and taking notes. Pulling out the field guide will usually come after I have already recorded notes about several species in my journal. You can download our free printable bird watching journal here.
6. Practice identifying birds with specimens. Specimens provide a great opportunity for practicing your identification skills. These were available at our local Audubon center. If you don’t have an Audubon center close by, check with nature centers, science teachers and biology departments on university campuses. Even if the specimens are not always on display, you may be able to arrange to use them for a few hours.
Our Favorite Bird Identification Field Guides For Kids
National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America, Second Edition – Jonathan Alderfer
Backyard Birds (Field Guides for Young Naturalists) –
The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guides) –
Our Favorite Bird Identification Field Guides For Adults
The Sibley Guide to Birds
The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America
Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America
How to Attract Birds in the Winter
Birdwatching Tips for Beginners
How to Create a Winter Bird Tree
15 Fascinating Children’s Books About Birds
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