Visual Identification


Bird watchers can identify most species from an initial look using the following keys to visual identification. These four keys are

  1. Size & Shape
  2. Colour & Pattern
  3. Behaviour & Habitat
  4. Song & Calls

1. Size & Shape

When it comes to making identifications, size and shape are the first pieces of information you should examine. With a little practice, you will find the difference in size and shape quite obvious. Judge the size of the bird against one that you know well. It helps to know if your bird is smaller than a sparrow of larger than a crow. Becoming familiar with a bird's overall size and shape that is its silhouette, can quickly tell you what group that bird belongs to.

Beak Shapes:

Apply the size and shape skills to the rest of the bird: Its beak, legs, wings & tail. Subtle differences in all of these head shapes, beak shapes, size of legs, neck length and body size when studied carefully are critical in bird identification.

Legs:   Are the legs long or short or coloured, thin or fat?
Wing Shape: Are the wings long, narrow and scythe-shaped like a swift's or short like a robin's?
Tail Shape: Is the tail relatively long like a long-tailed tit or short like a blue tit's? Is the end of the tail forked (like a swallow), notched, square-ended, round-ended or wedge-shaped?


2. Colour & Pattern

Record the colour of the bird's legs ,beaks , eyes and plumage and be definite about colour. Focus on the overall colour or pattern. Some birds have very strong vibrant colours that makes them easy to identify like the bullfinch or yellowhammer. The robin has a conspicuous red breast, throat and cheeks with otherwise all-brown plumage and grey-white belly. Many other birds can be very confusing in terms of identification because they look the same in colour shape and size with only subtle differences in patterns that identifies them e.g. the Willow Warbler and the Chiffchaff.

3. Behaviour & Habitat

You can identify a bird from a distance without seeing its colour or pattern or even using binocular's by simply observing how it act's. Bird species have their own unique way of feeding, flying, walking or even sitting. Watch the bird for as long as you can and you will learn more about that species behaviour and feeding habits. Consider every movement and become familiar with feeding styles.

Feeding Styles & Movement:

Does it hop low on the ground like the thrush and robin or feed on the wing like the swallow? Kingfishers dart from a branch into the river whilst the heron waits motionless alongside the river bank. Finches feed while standing.

Flight Patterns:

Does the bird fly close to the ground or water like a kingfisher or high in the air like the skylark? What are its flight patterns, straight like a robin or undulating like a pigeon? Does the bird fly alone or in groups like finches or starlings? Does the bird appear still in mid air but flapping its wings like the kestrel? Does the bird fly in the open or shelter in the tree mostly?


Was the bird's posture vertical like the heron or flycatcher or horizontal like a duck? Some birds hold their body upright whilst others appear horizontal. Learning to observe and record these behaviours will improve with practice and lead to better ID skills.


Where the bird lives i.e. grasslands, rivers, tall trees, forests, wetlands, mountain areas, gardens etc.

4. Song & Call

When a bird sings, it's telling you what it is and where it is. Learning bird songs is a great way to identify birds hidden by dense foliage, faraway birds, birds at night, and birds that look identical to each other. Bird songs are generally very musical and are used to warn off other birds from their territory and also to attract a mate.

Example: The Grey Heron

One of Ireland's tallest bird's. 90 - 96cms


Large dagger-shaped beak, long s-shaped neck, grey body, long legs.

Colour & Pattern:

Grey body, white head with a thick black stripe from the eye to the back of the head.

Behaviour & Habitat:

Can often be seen standing motionless, stalking its prey on lake edges, in rivers and streams or on the coast. Nests on tops of tall trees in colonies called heronries which it frequents from January until late summer. Slow wing beats in flight. Secretive.

Song & Call:

When disturbed it gives a loud frraank call.



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