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Getting Started in Birdwatching: Learn to Describe a Bird

Painted Bunting close-up
The unmistakable Painted Bunting, © Sandy Smolker iStock

Ever since I outed myself as a birder to my church, my pastoral duties have begun to include an increasing number of “Hey, what bird is this?” requests. Some of these conversations are easier than others.


“I saw a bright yellow bird yesterday in an open field, with a black cap, and its wings were black with white bars. Any idea what it was?” Color, markings, habitat… a great description for an American Goldfinch.


“Every morning when I jog I see these small brown birds. What are they?” Well, that one’s a little harder to answer.


I don’t fault anyone for their vague bird descriptions; after all, they at least were attentive enough to notice a bird in the first place, and hey, you should get points for that. I can even sympathize with their unhelpful descriptors, because when it comes to describing people I’m absolutely incompetent. If I’m ever asked by police to “describe the suspect” for a sketch artist, I’m fairly confident that suspect is going to get away scot-free.


A perching Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow, © 2024 Keith Lewis, used by permission

But If you know what to watch for when birdwatching, you can quickly capture some key identifying markers, clues that you can take back to your field guide or friend or app or pastor to confirm your sighting. Acknowledging that sometimes an uncooperative bird will only give you a few brief seconds in the open, here are three broad categories you can quickly note to narrow the options on your mystery bird:


1. Basic Size and Shape

What’s your first impression of the bird’s size? This one is easy if you have just four or five benchmarks. Birders (including the step-by-step guide built into the Merlin app) often use four widely-known comparatives — sparrow, robin, crow, and goose — as their yardstick (if you don’t live in the vicinity of American Robins, pick a common thrush-sized songbird for that second category). Once you’ve defined some common comparatives, you can now give helpful comments like “It’s bigger than a sparrow but smaller than a robin” or “It’s the size of a small crow.” Believe it or not, you’ve just significantly narrowed the field of possibilities. If you’d prefer, you can choose something else for your yardstick, like athletic equipment (golf ball, baseball, basketball, beach ball) or Italian food (meatball, calzone, stromboli, deep-dish pizza) but since birds aren’t spheres or pasta, you’ll probably just confuse people.

a guide to relative bird size, funny, featuring Big Bird

 What about shape? “Fluffy” is usually not a helpful answer. In fact, feather muscles just under the dermis layer can raise and lower feather follicles, which means that a bird can puff out its feathers for extra insulation when perched, or relax them for better aerodynamics when flying. So “fluffy” is more of an attitude, really.


Instead, shoot for words that capture the silhouette of a bird, briefly ignoring the coloration or pattern. At a minimum, this is what helps you realize you’re looking at a duck and not a turkey. Take a quick head-to-tail inventory and throw some adjectives at it:


“A slender-necked bird with a long curved bill.”

“A hawk-shaped bird with a long forked tail.”

“A small stubby-bodied bird with long pointed wings.”


Many field guides, including the Merlin app, categorize bird families with a representative silhouette, allowing you to quickly jump to that grouping of birds. As you become familiar with those shapes, you’ll discover you have a greater versatility, like recognizing a sparrow from a wren by its beak shape and posture.



2. Basic Color Pattern

Comparison of patterns on Wood Thrush and Swainson's Thrush
The distinct spots of a Wood Thrush vs. the smudgy spots of the Hermit Thrush, © Macaulay Lab

The reason I’d encourage you to start with size and shape, not color, is because bird color can be a fickle thing. Field guides and representative photos tend to picture a bird in its perfect breeding plumage, and life is rarely that perfect. The wood-warblers that travel down the U.S. coast in the Fall look disappointingly more dingy than the same birds that came up the same coast in the Spring. Plus, there are also the added challenges of juvenile plumage, morph phases, leucistic birds, molting, and even poor lighting.


Having said that, though, it’s still helpful to be attentive to which crayons God pulled out of the box. First, ask yourself what main color you’re seeing — the “base coat” of the bird. Often you’ll need to think in two-tone, with the underside usually a lighter color than the back; this is called counter-shading, a common phenomenon in nature that camouflages by presenting a different “view from above” and “view from below” to predators. While you’re at it, take note of whether the color also contains streaks, spots, or other unique patterns. A “clean color” versus a “streaked color” can often be the deciding factor between two potential birds.


3. Key Field Markings

As one final set of clues in your attempt to describe your bird, take note of other unique markings. I know that’s a broad and maybe unhelpful statement, but “field markings” are the sorts of things that get your attention, like the Man with the Yellow Hat or the Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes. And while those field markings could consist of anything, I find that I’m often looking in two specific places: the head and the wing.



First, take note of the shape of the beak, which is a useful part of that silhouette we talked about. Then look for any unique facial markings. If you want to sound super-sciency at your next bird outing, here’s some terms for describing the potential facial marks or striping on a bird.

Photo Diagram of the head of a White-throated Sparrow, showing the facial anatomy
  • The top of the head is the crest, and the line through the eye, if there is one, is called (very creatively) the eye line.

  • The area between those two locations is called the supercilium, where you might find an eyebrow stripe in some species.

  • Many birds have an eye ring — a noticeable accent that either partially or fully surrounds each eye; the presence (or absence) of an eye ring can often make the difference in a confident identification.

  • The area below the eyeline is the auricular, where a colored cheek patch can sometimes reside, and the area below that, downward from the base of the beak, is called the malar, sometimes boasting a malar stripe (A.K.A. a mustache).

  • And of course the throat, just below the beak, often hides some interesting color.

Close-up of a Lark Sparrow
Lark Sparrow, ©2010 Christoph Moning, Macaulay Library

Any of these facial locations could have unique markings or colors; the Lark Sparrow — as one example — has got it all going on.



When a bird is in flight, sometimes the wings are all you can see. Thankfully though, there are telltale signs in the wing patterns. Pay attention to the lights and darks, and any accents on the leading or lagging edge of the wings. A good field guide will give you some underside shots of raptors, shorebirds, and other species that you’re likely to be looking at from the bottom up. When a bird is perched, the first thing I’m looking for is any sign of wing bars — horizontal stripes that may appear across the middle of a bird’s wing when folded at rest. Or there might be wing patches — larger areas of color that may exist below the wing bars, or possibly higher up on the shoulder of the bird.

An Acadian Flycatcher perched on a birch tree
The Acadian Flycatcher's got it all; two wingbars and an eyering. © 2018 Dan Jones

I know that’s a lot of information. But trust me, eye rings and wing bars will get you far in life.


So go ahead, get some practice. You might start by attempting your best descriptions of the birds in your Top Ten (see prior post). If you’re the artsy type, try sketching a few. Look at some photos and make some field notes. Best of all, head outside and look around for something fluffy.




We are constantly exhorted in Scripture to pay attention, watching for the visible evidences of an invisible God. I love the reminder that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1) Every auricular patch and malar stripe goes far beyond a survival-of-the-fittest explanation, and instead shows the creativity of a Creator. The Bible anticipates that we will find other explanations for this artistry, “suppressing the truth.” (Romans 1:18) But it would be eternal loss to us if we only look at the window of God’s creation and not also look through it to the one it magnifies. May we not neglect the greater, more joyous lessons. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”


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