Birding tips

I'm quite familiar with the usual birds that visit my yard such as cardinals, finches, and sparrows. But every now and then a strange bird will fly in and it'll drive me crazy trying to figure out what it is.

Steve Dinsmore is an avian ecologist at Iowa State University. He says the best way to identify unknown birds is simply to watch them.

"Observe seasonal patterns in birds, practice field ID, listen to vocalizations. I identify probably more birds by sound than by sight. And then, learn the species habitat associations. There's a lot of correlations with that, a lot of birds are particular to certain types of habitats," says Dinsmore. "And if you understand or get to learn what those are, coupled with some things that you might see or hear, that increases your ability to identify unknown birds."

 Look at the bird's physical features and body proportions. Determine if it's sparrow-sized, crow-sized, or larger. Also, consider other details of the bird's appearance. Dinsmore says structure is a more reliable characteristic than color.

"Color is useful and certainly with birds it plays an important role in identification. But structure is something that varies a lot less. Lots of birds have plumage abnormalities, weird bill colors, etc. There are just lots of variation in color. Structure on the other hand, varies much less," he says. "Things like relative lengths of the bill, shape of the bill and depth, proportions of the wings, things like that are very, very useful."

Seasonal conditions affect when and where you see certain birds, as well as the time of day.

Flight pattern is another clue. Most large birds such as hawks and eagles soar. Ducks and geese glide between flapping. Hummingbirds hover, and other birds such as the American Goldfinch fly in a straight line, and dip up and down as they flap their wings.