The best way to identify backyard birds is to use a balanced observation approach that includes noting the behavior, voice, color, and field markings of the bird. A field guide may also help you identify the most common backyard birds in your region.
The backyard, for many, is their own personal gateway to nature. It is a private paradise where one can take pleasure to observe (and identify) frequent visitors from the comfort of their back deck, a comfortable chair or through a window.
If you are new to bird identification, observing familiar birds in your backyard can help you understand the characteristics that make one bird species different from the next. This casual approach, and looking for certain characteristics, can help you improve your ID skills (and impress your friends).
We have spent a lot of time observing and identify backyard birds from home, and it is something we enjoy doing throughout every season. Seeing certain species arrive throughout the year (such as the Carolina Wren in early spring), is a welcoming sight.
The Carolina Wren, for example, has a distinctive call that alerts us to his presence. Without knowing a certain bird’s call, it can be difficult to find and identify the birds that visit your backyard.
What to Look for to Identify Specific Birds
Identifying specific birds goes well beyond their color and size. As you begin to pay more attention to the birds that visit your backyard, you will realize that there are subtle variations between similarly sized species, and you can’t always make a confident call on their color.
To effectively identify a bird, it’s helpful to look at a number of key indicators that narrow down your choice. In this article, we’ll explain how we have learned to successfully identify the many birds in our backyard, and the primary signals to look for.
Becoming familiar with the group will help narrow down the choices as a first step. Learning the traits that define a bird family will help you focus on the family level/group of families (i.e. warblers, sparrows, finches, etc.) will get you that much closer, more quickly.
The complete list of taxonomic groups includes everything from Ducks, to Hawks. You don’t need to learn each one of these species families to better understand the birds that visit your backyard, but there are few that stand out when it comes to backyard birds:
- Pigeons and Doves
- Hawks, Eagles, and Kites
- Falcons and Caracaras
- Tyrant Flycatchers
- Crows, Jays, and Magpies
- Mockingbirds and Thrashers
- Old and New World Sparrows
This category is an extension of the first and knowing the shape will help you narrow it down to the right family if you haven’t already done so. If you don’t know the family, you can start by looking at the size of the bird and using a familiar species as your comparison for which to measure all the birds.
For example, you will have a benchmark to use moving forward like “that bird is smaller than a Robin”. Even if you have determined the species using a different identifier, it is worthwhile to study the shape so you can learn it and use it in the future.
In the image below, you can see just how much larger this Woodpecker is than the house sparrow sharing the bird feeder perch on the other side. Once you become familiar with the typical sizes of the birds you see in your backyard, one that is noticeably smaller or larger than them will stand out immediately.
Look at the way the bird behaves. Does it climb trees, hop on the ground, constantly in motion? Is it in a group, alone or in pairs? The behavior of the bird can often give away the species from a glance.
For instance, the Northern flicker is obviously a woodpecker at a glance when climbing up a tree and the way it perches. However, the behavior of this species on the ground sets it apart from other woodpeckers right away. The Northern flicker will spend a lot of time foraging for food in open grass areas (looking for ants and other insects), which is less commonly seen with a Downy or Red-bellied woodpecker.
4. Color/Field Markings
A bird’s overall color (or plumage) is another distinguishable feature that will help narrow down your bird choice. Although plumage will change depending on the season for some birds, flashes of color on other parts (tail, eye markings, rump patches, etc.) can be helpful in distinguishing between related birds.
Color can be surprisingly difficult to observe without the right lighting conditions. Even a bird that shows brilliant red color in the early morning sunlight may appear as a grey, dull silhouette with the light behind it. Often times, you’ll need to wait for the bird to move to a location with adequate sunlight to reveal the colors that help you identify it.
5. Flight Pattern
Paying close attention to the way a bird flies can provide another clue. Does it hover in one place? Does it fly fast and straight, dip up in down, fly in a zigzag pattern?
Depending on the layout of your backyard, the birds flight pattern can be a difficult trait to observe. If the bird is flying, there is a good chance it is either arriving in your yard or leaving. Fast-moving little birds such as warbler are very difficult to identify this way, but massive Turkey vultures and Herons are easy slow-moving targets.
6. Bill Shape
The shape and size of a bill is another way to help with identification. Is it small and fine like a warbler’s, short and stout like a seed-cracking sparrow, long and narrow like a woodpecker?
This signal is best appreciated when the bird is very close to you, and with the aid of binoculars. Many backyard birds are small, and the bill shape is not obvious at a glance. Most often, we study the shape of the bird’s bill in a photograph to help us identify it. This way, you can get a nice long look at the animal and compare it to reference images in your field guide.
In many birdwatching scenarios, you don’t know exactly what you saw until after you saw it.
7. The Tail
The shape and behavior of the tail can be another identifier. Is it rounded, pointed, forked? Is it long and narrow? And how is it held upright (like a wren), straight behind or pointed down?
Unlike the color of the bird and shape of its beak, the tail can be observed from a distance. For many species of backyard birds, the shape of the tail comprises nearly half of the bird’s overall shape. In situations where lighting is less than ideal, it can actually be easier to make out the shape of its tail as a shadow against a light background, then it is with a well-lit view with a busy background.
Although this characteristic is trickier than the others, getting into the habit of using a birdsong for identification very handy. Is your bird is making a distinct sound, finding out what it is will help you and remember it for future bird watching is even better.
Learning to properly identify and birds song and the subtle differences between them is a lifelong process. Only experienced birders will be able to accurately record nearly every bird they hear. Although this process is challenging, learning a birds song is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the hobby overall.
All of these identifiers used together can help you narrow down your sighting to the correct family/species. Start by recognizing the categories and then try to implement them in your backyard to see how many birds you can identify.
A spotting scope or a pair of binoculars is the best way to take your observing to the next level. This provides you with a magnified view of the birds that visit your backyard, and a deeper look into their activity.
Need help? We suggest getting a pocket or a field guild so you can look up your sighting based on the above characteristics to determine what type of bird you are looking at.
Here is a great video by Stefano Ianiro Wildlife that explains the art of identifying backyard birds very well:
List of Common Backyard Birds in North America
Birdwatching from the comfort of home can be a lot of fun because you can really start listening and paying attention to the wild birds that are all around us. The best time to participate in this activity is in the spring, as most birds are very active, and the weather is pleasant.
Here is a brief list of the most common backyard birds in Eastern North America. All of these species have visited our backyard in Ontario, Canada within the last 12 months. The number of species observed will depend on the habitat in or near your backyard.
- American Robin
- Northern Cardinal
- Mourning Dove
- House Wren
- Carolina Wren
- Dark-eyed Junco
- White-throated Sparrow
- White-crowned Sparrow
- Chipping Sparrow
- Black-capped Chickadee
- White-breasted Nuthatch
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
- House Finch
- American Goldfinch
- Brown-headed Cowbird
- Downy Woodpecker
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- American Crow
- Baltimore Oriole
- Ruby-crowned Kinglet
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Brown Creeper
- Eastern Bluebird
- Cedar Waxwing
- Common Grackle
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Great-horned Owl
- American Kestrel
How to Attract More Birds to Your Backyard
You can increase your chances of attracting a wider range of bird species in your backyard by creating the types of atmospheres birds love. Studies have shown that the overall populations of birds reach their greatest numbers in habitats such as a woodland’s edge.
We can copy many of the features found in wild settings in our own backyard. The goal is to provide the birds with safe areas for bathing, dusting, feeding, nesting, and perching. Here are a few great ideas to consider when planning your backyard bird oasis:
- Incorporate a water feature into your garden
- Grow thickets of thorny plants
- Create light conditions from full shade to full sun
- Grow plants of varying heights
- Choose plants that grow fruit, berries, and seed
What Type of Bird Feeder is Best?
The bird feeder for your backyard will depend on the types of birds you want to attract, and the time of year. For example, we have found a finch sock with nyjer seed to be extremely effective at attracting beautiful American goldfinches to our yard in the summer. On the other hand, a suet cake with plenty of nuts is sure to attract Woodpeckers in the winter.
We have found a hopper style feeder that is easy to clean and squirrel proof to be the best all-around bird feeder. Over the years, we have tested several types of backyard bird feeders from suet cages to house-style hopper feeders and found that this one attracts the absolute widest variety of backyard birds, all year long.
In North America, squirrels will relentlessly try to steal birdseed and nuts from your feeder if they find a way in. This not only wastes a lot of bird food (which can be expensive) but also deters birds from visiting the feeder. For this reason, a bird feeder that is resistant to squirrels is essential. Once they realize they can not get to the food, they will give up.
It’s possible to attract many of the birds on this list to your backyard with a bird feeder, and a source of water. We like to use a hopper-style feeder that is suitable for most visitors, and a dedicated suet feeder (with a tail prop) for woodpeckers. Make sure you clean your bird feeder with soap and water regularly, and place the feeder in a location birds can access safely.
You may also notice lots of birds that fly over your backyard such as swans, turkey vultures, and great blue herons. Learning how to identify backyard birds will increase your list of species as you recognize their distinctive traits.
Events such as the great backyard bird count are a great way to contribute to science, simply by documenting all of the species you observe in your backyard. This is a four-day birdwatching event sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audobon Society.