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Bird Identification Clues

Some people can quickly recognize a bird, even from a distance. How do they do it? The first step is understanding that it takes more than one clue to identify a bird:

  • silhouette
  • colour
  • behaviour
  • song and call
  • habitat.

Birdwatchers can study these clues and see examples of the birds themselves at the Canadian Museum of Nature before putting their knowledge into practice in the field (where conditions are not always very accommodating!).


John Crosby © Canadian Museum of Nature


Ospreys have an M-shaped flight silhouette, long narrow wings, and a medium-sized tail.

This refers to the outline of a bird as cast by its shadow, or its profile. Whether seen at a distance or nearby, characteristics of the bird's silhouette are usually the first things that birdwatchers look for:

  • size of the bird
  • shape and proportions of the wings, tail and head
  • shape of the bill
  • body posture.

For example, birdwatchers more often see raptors in flight far away than standing up close. In such instances, the flight silhouette (especially the shape and position of the wings) becomes the most important clue in identifying the bird.


John Crosby © Canadian Museum of Nature


Pileated Woodpecker.

Brightly and distinctly hued species such as the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) are easy to identify by their colouring. Other species may not have such obvious colours or markings, and they may look similar to other species, so only careful observation can detect slight differences. Furthermore, for many species, males and females look different. Also, depending on the species, colouration and markings can change as the bird matures or according to the season.


John Crosby © Canadian Museum of Nature


Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (left)
Alder Flycatcher (right)

Swimming, nesting, feeding and flight patterns are examples of identifying behaviour. Observation of the bird's actions can help you determine what kind it is, and it can also help you distinguish between two species that look very similar.

Diving and dabbling ducks, for example, float high in the water, while loons and cormorants float very low (sometimes only their heads are visible above the water).

Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) can look similar to Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), but they fly very differently: kittiwakes beat their wings, while fulmars hold theirs stiffly, like a single plank from wing tip to wing tip.

Song and Call

Most species have a distinctive song or call. To identify a bird by sound, you have to train your ear. It is best to also catch sight of the bird to confirm its identity, because sometimes related species sound similar, and some mimic the calls of others.

Male birds are mainly the ones that sing. They sing to defend their territory against other males or to attract females. To sing, the bird vibrates the highly elastic walls of an organ called a syrinx, which is at the junction of the bronchial tubes.

The songs that are most melodious to our ears are mainly produced by small perching birds called passerines.


Simply paying attention to where you are can help you figure out what species you're seeing or hearing. Each one can often be found in a specific habitat, such as forests or marshlands. Often, species adapt to particular habitats within a larger habitat. For example, those found in a maple grove may be adapted to the undergrowth, openings in the forest, or treetops.

Spruce forest, in the shady lower stratum? Probably a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris). Alder thicket along a stream? Probably an Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum).