Skip Navigation

Species Search:

Birding Focus: Interesting stories of our feathered friends.

Eastern bluebird (male) is not an all-blue bird
© George H. Harrison

What Is That Bird?

Many of the questions that come to are about mystery birds seen but not identified. “There was a new bird in my backyard this morning, and I can’t find it in the field guide ...” is the way many of them begin. From that point on, the description often gets a little fuzzy.

When describing a bird that is unfamiliar, there are some key points to be made that will help identify it:

Size: Is the bird larger or smaller than a robin or a sparrow?
Shape: Does the bird have a long neck, long legs, or long bill?
Color: Is the bird the same color overall, or is it multi-colored. Where are the primary colors? On the head? Throat? Breast? Back? Belly?
Field marks: Does the bird have wing bars? White outer tail feathers, or eye lines or circles around its eyes?
Location: Where was the bird when you saw it? In a tree, on the ground, or in the water? Where in the U.S. did you see it?
Time: When did you see it? Morning, afternoon, evening, or at night? What season of the year was it?
Behavior: What was the bird doing when you saw it? Eating, bathing, singing, sleeping, flying, perching?
Sounds: Was the bird singing, chipping, or making any kind of sound?

These are all important clues, that are very helpful in making an identification of a mystery bird. More often than not, the bird is not rare or even unusual, and with the proper clues, can be identified quickly and easily.

-- George H. Harrison