Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recognizing vs. Identifying Birds

While riding the bus during the recent field trip at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, I overheard a very kind gentleman sitting behind me comment to his buddy, "It's just amazing how quickly Robert identifies these birds!"  Well, I appreciate the nice words, but I have to let you in on a little secret...I wasn't "identifying" most of the birds during that field trip, I was simply "recognizing" them.

Some birds are so distinctive that most birders "recognize" them without having to go through an identification process.
I am far from being an expert on bird identification...especially because of my lack of experience and the natural lack of patience that comes with my personality type.  But, because I do go birding almost everyday and have done so avidly for the last six or so years, I have gotten really good at recognizing the birds common to the places I live.  There are hundreds of birds out there that I still have to "identify" - or in other words, go through a list of steps like noting overall shape and size, behavior, habitat, color pattern, sound, etc.  This is a process that can take just a few seconds, or sometimes hours, with a lot of note-taking and pouring over reference books.

“There is no ‘wrong way’ to go birding.  Birding is something that we do for enjoyment—so, if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder.”
- Kenn Kaufman
Each year, I feel my ability to "recognize" birds increases both by sight and by sound.  I spend too much a lot of time browsing birding blogs and thumbing through field guides.  That time spent looking at hundreds of bird illustrations and photos has greatly enhanced my ability to recognize rather than have to identify birds.  I think is a large part of the philosophy behind the new Crossley ID Guide.

My growing ability to "recognize" birds without having to go through the mental calisthenics of identifying them was most apparent when I was traveling the east coast last fall.  Many of the new birds I saw, I could put a name to instantly without having to consult a field guide. I felt like I had skipped the "identification" process.  I guess I had not really skipped a step; the entire identification process was just completed in a split-second.  This, I suppose, is how I define "recognizing" versus "identifying".

Do you recognize this bird? Or do you need to break out the field guide and study up on all the heron types before you figure it out.  Either way, its okay. The more you go birding, the more birds you will "recognize". 
If you feel that your enjoyment of birding will be enhanced by being better able to identify and recognize birds, I invite you to continue reading.  Fantastic tips on bird identification techniques abound in birding publications and online, so I'd like to share just three basic tips on "recognizing" birds.

1.  Go birding a lot.  Frequent outings focused on looking for birds keeps the synapses between the mind and your eyes and ears firing on all neurons.  If you are only going on one birding field trip a month, especially trips where other experts are pointing out the birds to you the entire time, you will never develop those bird recognition skills yourself.  Birding with groups is fun and rewarding, but go birding alone a lot too.

2.  Look at a lot of pictures and illustrations of birds.  Field guides are fun to flip through.  Visiting bird blogs, especially those with lots photos, helps more than you probably realize.  You get to see birds in a wide variety of poses and light conditions.  Reading birding magazines also helps expose you to lots of birds.  It is the repetition that makes all the difference.

3.  Birdwatch often.  If you are competing in a Big Day competition, you only look at or listen to a bird long enough to check off it's name on the list.  That is a lot of fun sometimes, but if you want to have the skills that those great Big Day competitors have, you need to also slow down and "birdwatch" often.  Observing bird behavior for several minutes - even if not consciously taking notes - just simple watching, will imprint that bird on your brain.  Now, you can hasten your development of bird recognition skills if you do take written notes during your birdwatching.  There really is something about the exercise of putting mental images and thoughts into words that increases the depth of learning, retention, and the speed of mental recall.

Do you recognize this flock of shorebirds at a glance?  Let me hear what you think they are in the comments.


  1. Excellent post on summing up the ability to immediately identify birds. The more one practices identifying birds in the field, the less one needs to think about it when they are seen or heard.

  2. @Pat ODonnell - thanks for the comment! There really is no magic to it. Looking at a lot of birds makes all the difference.

  3. 79 Long-billed Dowitchers and 1 American Avocet. The dowitchers are identified by the rather scattered flock and hunched-back postures--even before clicking to enlarge and see the bill. Long-billed is the default inland dowitcher in large numbers, since the trees and houses in the background don't look like coastal forms.

  4. @Greg - Haha! Nice work Greg. I count 79 LB Dowitchers too and yes there is an American Avocet hiding inthe back there. I imagine you are a great "recognizer" of many bird species.

  5. Just read the comments and I thought dowitchers also. Didn't look long enough to find the avocet! didn't count either so I will trust Greg with that number!