by Christine Hanrahan
So you want to be a birdwatcher, but you just don’t know where to begin? And the thought of trying to distinguish a nighthawk from a nuthatch reduces you to despair? Don’t worry, help is at hand! The following information will provide you with everything (well, almost everything) you need to launch you safely into the beguiling world of birding.
Start with the “four Ss” of bird identification. With these basics, together with the rest of this information, you’ll soon find yourself rhyming off the names of at least the most common species. So, grab your field guide and binoculars and begin. Good luck and good birding!
Shape or silhouette
When you spot a bird, you automatically process several things about it. One of the most important is its shape. Is the bird’s general outline rounded or elongated? Is the tail long or short? Is the head relatively large or small? If it’s flying, are its wings round and short, long and pointed, or some other combination?
Train yourself to look at the silhouette of flying and perching birds and compare them with birds you are familiar with. Most people can point out a heron, a duck, or a gull, even if they don’t know the species name. These three groups of birds each have a distinctive shape, as do hawks and owls.
Some of the perching birds may present more problems at first, but with experience you’ll find yourself distinguishing between the silhouette of a robin and a sparrow, for example, or between a nuthatch and a chickadee.
As you become more familiar with birds and birdwatching, you’ll be able to identify different species within a group just by their shape. A Cooper’s Hawk, for instance, which looks a lot like a Sharp-shinned Hawk, can be distinguished by the shape of its tail (the tip is rounded compared with the square shape of the Sharp-shinned’s tail).
Size is also important in identification. Again, compare the unknown bird with one you are familiar with. Is the bird smaller than a robin? Bigger than a crow? You might also try to relate it to something nearby, like a leaf or flower.
Site (or habitat)
Because birds generally inhabit characteristic sites or habitats, the area in which you find a bird can help you identify it. For example, you wouldn’t expect to see a Virginia Rail in a deciduous woodlot nor a Hermit Thrush in a meadow.
Take time to learn a little about the habitat requirements and preferences of various birds. Even a general overview will help a lot when it comes to identification. For instance, if you have decided that the size and shape of a bird indicate a sparrow, next consider where it is. If the bird is in a meadow, it could be a Savannah Sparrow. But if it is in a moist or swampy area, it is probably a Swamp Sparrow.
Sound (or song, calls, chip notes)
Birds make a variety of sounds. In addition to singing, they utter short, sharp notes or “chips.” When alarmed, they produce a very different call. Songs are easier to learn than chip or call notes, which can take a long time to master. Familiarizing yourself with the songs of at least the common species will make identification that much easier. In fact, if you become very good at recognizing bird songs, you will be able to identify some birds before you see them! And because many birds are heard rather than seen, this is a definite plus.
Identifying bird songs can, at first, seem akin to magic. But with practice you can learn a surprising number of common ones in a relatively short time. Recordings of bird songs on cassette tape, CD, or even video can be found at one of the local specialty bird stores (see list below).
Some birders use words to help them “fix” songs in their mind. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, and the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies both describe many bird songs in easily understood terms. Of course, many birds “say” their own name, so their names are a guide to their song or call note. Here is a partial, very selective list of some familiar bird songs and calls and the words associated with them:
• Killdeer — kill-deer
• Black-billed Cuckoo — cucucu cucucu
• Barred Owl — who cooks for you? who cook for you-all?
• Whip-poor-will — whip’ poor-will
• Olive-sided Flycatcher — quick, three beers!
• Eastern Wood Pewee — pee-a-wee, pee-ur
• Alder Flycatcher — fee-be-o
• Least Flycatcher — che-bec
• Eastern Phoebe — phoe-be
• Great Crested Flycatcher — wheeep!
• Black-capped Chickadee — fee-bee, chicka-dee-dee-dee
• Veery — vee-ur, vee-ur, veer veer
• Wood Thrush — ee-o-lay
• Red-eyed Vireo — here I am, where are you?
• Yellow Warbler — sweet-sweet-sweet-shredded wheat
• Chestnut-sided Warbler — please-please-pleased-to-meet ‘cha
• Black-throated Blue Warbler — beer-beer-beer-bee
• Black-throated Green Warbler — zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zee or zee-zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee
• Ovenbird — teach’er, teach’ er, teach’er
• Common Yellowthroat — witchity-witchity-witchity-witch
• White-throated Sparrow — old Tom Peabody Peabody Peabody
• Red-winged Blackbird — ok-a-ree
A few other birds make distinctive sounds that are harder to “translate.” For example, the Gray Catbird and especially the Brown Thrasher are mimics.
Gray Catbird — Call sounds like a cat mewing. Song is somewhat like a Brown Thrasher, but phrases not in pairs and not as musical.
Brown Thrasher — Song a long, very musical set of phrases, each phrase usually sung in a pair.
You might think that the colour of a bird is the most important identifying factor, but keep the four Ss of birding in mind. For example, the red colour of a partly obscured bird could mean either a Cardinal or a Scarlet Tanager. The shape can help you distinguish between them, for each has a distinct silhouette.
Field marks are distinctive “trademarks,” like wing bars, striped crowns, barred tails, and so on, that make identification easier. Many field marks are visible only when a bird flies — the white rump of the Northern Flicker or Northern Harrier for example. Others, such as wing bars, are easier to see when the bird is sitting.
One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the field marks of different species is by reading through your bird guide as often as you can and applying what you learn in the field.
Bird behaviour is often a key element in solving identification problems. For example, if you have determined that the bird you are watching is a small flycatcher but aren’t sure whether it is an Eastern Wood Pewee or a Phoebe, tail-bobbing behaviour is a clear indication that it’s a Phoebe.
Observing the behaviour of birds is fascinating and far more satisfying than merely identifying species. Donald and Lillian Stokes have produced three volumes called A Guide to Bird Behaviour that reveal intriguing facts about even the most common species. Studying behaviour will ensure that you will never grow bored with birdwatching.
Rating the field guides
Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2nd edition), National Geographic Society — This is undoubtedly the best field guide around for North American Birds. The superior illustrations show both adult and immature plumage, as well as regional variations for many species. Includes range maps.
A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies by Roger Tory Peterson — The first and, for many birders, still the best field guide. The illustrations are very good. Best of all, this guide covers only birds found east of the Rockies, so you won’t have to bother wading through a lot of species that just don’t occur here (except perhaps as accidentals). This makes identification a bit easier. Includes range maps.
A Guide to Field Identification — Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, Zim and Singer (also known as the Golden Guide) — Like the National Geographic guide, this one covers all the birds of North America. Depicts some immature plumages, and is both simpler and less intimidating than the National Geographic guide. A useful book if you’re just getting started in birding and want all North American birds, but don’t want to be bothered with too many details.
Where to go birding in Ottawa
There are many places in our region to go birdwatching, and most birders have their own favourite sites. A good way to discover local birding hot spots is to join the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) and participate in their many field trips. As an added bonus, a skilled leader will help you increase your birding skills along the way.
See also: Where to go birding around Ottawa
Habitat guide to birding
A habitat can be defined as a place where a bird finds the combination of water, food, cover, and space that it needs to survive. Different species require different habitats, and although some birds are generalists, able to use several habitats, most are linked to specific types. Knowing a species’ habitat can help you identify it. The following lists show the habitat preferences of some common birds in the Ottawa region, but it is by no means exhaustive. Some birds are listed several times, reflecting their use of different habitats.
Black-throated Green Warbler
Eastern hardwoods (deciduous woods)
Great Horned Owl
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Wood Pewee
Fields, meadows, farmland
Brushy borders of fields and woodlands (edge habitat)
Wetlands (marshes, swamps, fens), wet or moist woods
Great Blue Heron
American Black Duck
Ponds, streams, rivers, riparian (streamside) zones
Great Blue Heron
American Black Duck
Human habitation (farms, town, parks, houses, gardens)
Many birds may stop over in backyards, parks and other urban settings during migration, so expect to see a wider variety than listed here. Over time, some birders have counted more than 100 species in their city backyards.
Be sure to check out our photo gallery of birds we’ve seen at the FWG.