Inside Birding: Size and Shape

Inside Birding: Size and Shape


One thing all
really good birders have in common is that they know how to recognize birds. Sounds obvious, right? But you may not know is that experts actually key into
four characteristics to identify birds. That’s right. Those four keys to identification are size
and shape, overall color pattern, behavior, and habitat. When experts use these to
identify birds, they’re able to identify more birds and they’re able
to identify them more often. And with some practice of these four keys, you’ll start looking at
birds differently. If you do, we promise you’ll become a better birder. So if you’ve ever wondered
how that hotshot birder is able to identify a bird
as it flies by quickly, well, we’re going to let you in on their little secret.
In this installment of “Inside Birding”, we’re going to cover the first
key to identification: size and shape. If there’s one thing I wish
I knew when I was starting out, it would be the importance of
using size and shape to identify birds. Like most people, I began by focusing on
field marks and plumage details. But what I didn’t realize is
how variable plumages can be, especially as they change
from one season to the next. While field marks
can be helpful, it’s not actually what most experienced birders
use to identify birds. We actually identify birds
in the same way we identify things we see every day. So, think of it this way. When you see a
friend or family member from a distance, you recognize them not by a detail,
like their eye color or their hair style, but by their overall appearance,
their height, their build, that sort of thing. So if you can apply
this same technique to birding, you’ll be able to identify birds as easily
as you recognize your friends. This looks like a really great place to
find birds. We’ve got a great mix of habitat. We’ve got these low grasses and wildflowers; we’ve got this
big bank of deciduous trees. We have this big conifer over here. We have another bank
of conifers over here. What I really like are all these
berry-producing shrubs. That’s gonna make this a great place to
look for American Robin. I know what you’re thinking –
American Robin, they’re too easy, they’re too common. But here’s the
thing, it makes sense to practice your birding skills with a bird that you know
you can locate, and most importantly, really spend time watching it. All right, where are they?
Let’s go find some robins. There’s a couple of phoebes up just where there’s the first
main rise on the left side. Hearing some chickadees up there. There’s a pretty sweet waxwing. All right, here we go, here’s a robin. Okay, so check it out. We’ve got a medium-sized songbird that’s
definitely smaller than a crow but larger than a sparrow. So Jessie just did two really important
things when identifying birds by size and shape. First, she put the bird into the correct
group or family of birds. And I know what you’re thinking, that could be pretty hard,
but you probably already know more than you think you do. Is the bird a duck,
is it a heron, is it a raptor? Even the most basic observations are useful.
The next thing she did was to make a size comparison.
Did you hear how she said it’s smaller than a crow, but larger than a sparrow? Making comparisons is key to identifying birds. Yeah, when we’re out birding,
we’re constantly making comparisons, narrowing down the list of species
to figure out what we’re looking at. Now that we’ve checked out size,
let’s look at the shape. Oh, here’s a robin, teed up, just to the left of the tall conifer. Oh, yeah. Oh, it’s pretty chunky, kind of pot-bellied. So when observing a bird’s shape, it’s
important to start out with the overall impression of the bird.
Jessie thought it was pretty chunky. The next thing she’ll do is
key in on those parts of the bird that are most useful for
identification: the head, the bill, the length of the wings
and the length of the tail. All the while, she’s constantly making comparisons with the
bird she sees to what she already knows. Yeah, so taking a closer
look at its shape, we can see that it’s got
a fairly long bill, rather small head, large body, and the tail is relatively long. Yeah, good description. So if I were to compare
this bird to other birds I know, I’d say that it has a shorter tail
than a mockingbird but it has a larger body. It doesn’t have a crest
like a Blue Jay or cardinal would. And check out how long those wings are, nothing like a House Wren’s stubby wings. I don’t think I can overstate the
importance of making comparisons when you’re out birding. Now I know this is going to
sound a little bit weird, but one of the best type
of comparisons that you can make is to compare the bird to itself. And that’s a subject of
today’s “pro insight”. Comparing an individual bird’s
body parts with one another, for example the length of the wings
relative to the length of the tail, can be a particularly good way to
identify birds that appear very similar. A perfect example of this – Hairy and Downy Woodpecker. Here’s what we’re talking about.
We have a Hairy Woodpecker on the side of the feeder. Now we have a Downy Woodpecker
on the side of the same feeder. In both cases, they’re males;
you can tell by the red on the top of the head. And just for comparison, now we have
a female Downy Woodpecker, no red on the back of the head. You can see how confusing
these two species can be. They really look very
similar to each other. Now, let’s take a closer look
at a couple of still images. Here on the left, we have a Downy Woodpecker
and on the right, a Hairy Woodpecker. Again, it’s really easy to see
why these species are commonly confused, but when you have them right next
to each other, like we do now, the first thing that really jumps out is
how much larger the Hairy Woodpecker is. The problem of course is that we’d never
see birds like this in the field, so what we’re going to do is
compare the bird to itself. Let’s zoom in and see
what I’m talking about. Here on the Downy Woodpecker
the length of the bill is clearly shorter, relative to the width of the head. If you were to take the bill and
rotate it one hundred and eighty degrees, the bill would barely extend past the eye. If we turn our attention now
to the Hairy Woodpecker, here we can see that the bill’s
obviously larger and longer relative to the width
of the head. If you were to take its bill and
rotate it a hundred and eighty degrees, the bill would extend well past the eye. Let’s take one last look at these together
and it becomes clear what I’m talking about. But these are still photos and still photos are really easy. So now let’s take a look at birds
as we might see them in the field and put this ID skill to use. This one’s pretty easy. Again, look at how large the bill is.
If you were to rotate that a hundred and eighty degrees,
it would clearly go beyond the eye. Any guesses? That’s right, Hairy Woodpecker. Now we have a bird as I tend to see them
in the field with a lot of vegetation between me and the bird. But that is a tiny bill. That’s right;
it’s a Downy Woodpecker. Now this is pretty sweet.
We have a bird in the nest cavity. Again, look at the length of the bill.
That’s a monster. Do you know what it is? Hairy Woodpecker. Good view. Again, really large bill. Another Hairy Woodpecker. All right, so you’re probably
getting the hang of this by now. You know separating Hairy and Downy
Woodpeckers is just one of many identification challenges
that can be quickly solved using this type of comparison. The great thing about it is, you don’t
need another object or another bird to make comparisons to. All you have to do is to
compare the bird to itself. Whether we’re looking at a
bird’s overall structure or we’re comparing individual parts of the bird, we use size and shape more
than anything else to identify birds. So to recap, the first thing you want to do when you find a bird
is figure out what group or family the bird belongs to. Next, take a look at the overall size and
shape and make comparisons to birds you already know. And finally, if you get a good read on the
bird, take a look at the body parts and look at their size and shape
and see how they relate to one another. Now keep in mind, size and shape alone may not be enough
to enable you to identify every bird you see in every situation, but when you
combine size and shape with overall color pattern, behavior and habitat, the
other three keys to identification which we’ll cover in future episodes,
size and shape becomes a powerful way of identifying birds. And remember birds are everywhere, so get out there and
take your birding to next level.

31 thoughts on “Inside Birding: Size and Shape”

  1. Thank you so much for this terrific introductory video on birding. My third graders watched it, and they really got a good sense for how to carefully observe wild birds. Now, when we go birding, I hear them saying, "It's larger than a robin, but smaller than a crow." Awesome!

  2. Can you help me identify this bird in TN? Its about the size of a sparrow I have been watching it when it comes on floor by feeder to eat which isnt often, only when it gets really really cold and snowy do i see it come out. It will than hop than scratch back with both fet at once. I call it

    my hoppin scratchin bird . It hops than scratches back with both feet in a fluid short motion. Ok..I Hope you can help me identify this bird with these eating characteristics.

    God bless

  3. I am already a better birder for having watched this video. Have Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers at the feeders all the time. You just made it easy to tell which. Thanks

  4. I love this series, Inside Birding, and the two ornithologists… I have learned more, or rather, I can take what I already know and observe with a few questions… I am soo excited. In the past, I just tried to tell by color & markings- but those darn birds fly & flit so quickly. I have two bird feeders & all these little songbirds come… What are they? I still don't know, but I know I will be able to figure who they all are. A few have a longer tail, most of them are little round fatties…

  5. I think this is the third time I've watched this video… I want to have the information become ingrained. I have already "taken my Birding to another level"… Thank you two & Cornell Ornithology Lab & all the other behind the scenes folks that made these videos possible. I have greatly enjoyed all four videos… And posted all four on facebook… Again, THANKS!

  6. I saw two new birds near my building. One is a small Jay with a kind of pastel reddish pink on it's head and tail. The middle is a greyish color. The othe bird is the size of a Grackle but it's light grey! And it's long tail has two white bars on the edges, and the wing's have thick white on the edges too. I think the changing climate brought them north.

  7. I just watched this series for the first time and learned SO much. Thank you!!! I do have one tiny request for future instructional videos like this: Would you please flash the name/species of birds on the screen as they are observed and announced? It would be very helpful to us beginners. Other than that, each video was OUTSTANDING! And thank you for my “Project FeederWatch” Bird-Watching Days calendar. Now I just need a better pair of binoculars. ♥

  8. Thanks for the video Cornell LoO, your tip on comparing relative sizes between the Downy and Hairy Woodpecker helped make the correct identification this weekend! Logged my first Downy.

  9. Try differenting a Pacific Loon from a Red-throated at a thousand feet in air completely backlit.

  10. Thanks for the video. I enjoy bird watching but when i have my bionicalars. People think im spying i guess because im black

  11. Man. Great video editing technique. Very professional. Chunky? Is that the first impression people make of me. That I’m chunky?

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