Bird Identification

Quick links:

This identification program is for birds in the northeastern and central parts of United States and adjacent Canada. Fill out the form as best as you can and you'll find which bird match. It's better to start with a few characteristics you are sure about, then add more as needed. Use the "Back" button to go back and add (or subtract) characteristics. If you want to see all the birds in the database, simply hit "Identify" without checking any boxes.

Some books that can help include:

Bird Characteristics: see this image (from Wikipedia) for a useful description of the terminology used below. For North vs. South, see this Google Map. North includes the northern half of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, upstate New York, West Virginia and central Pennsylvania, and Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. All other states are South.

Check the characteristics that you see (you can always hit "Back" and change these later).

   Walking, wading, running
   Hopping or climbing
   Still perching
   Continuous flying

   Larger than robin
   About same size as robin
   Smaller than robin

   Neck long
   Tail long
   Tail forked
   Bill long, as long or longer than head
   Bill thick, as thick or thicker at base than length of bill
   Head crested

   Mostly white
   Mostly blackish, or dark gray, bluish black, etc.
   Mostly black and white, or other dark color and white
   Mostly brownish, or with many brown streaks or spots
   Mostly dull green or brownish green
   Rust color present
   Red present
   Yellow or orange
   Blue or bright green (not dull green)

Markings [diagram]
   Round spots on body
   Streaks (long spots)
   Cross barring
   Underparts plain
   Bold markings present (patches or blotches of black, white, or color)
   Head stripes or bands
   Crown patch
   Eye ring
   Tail stripes (along)
   Tail bands (across)
   Wing bands or bars

When and Where
   North summer (June through August)
   North winter (November through February)
   South summer (June through August)
   South winter (November through February)

   Wood habitat
   Field habitat
   Marsh habitat
   Flats or beach habitat

   Continuous flying high (near or above treetops when flying)
   Continuous flying low (below treetops when flying)
   Perched high (generally above middle of trees when perched or foraging)
   Perched low (generally below middle of trees when perched or foraging)
   On ground (walking, wading, running, hopping, or resting on ground)

   Soaring flight (gliding or circling on set wings)
   Zig zag flight (many irregular twists and turns)
   Bounding flight
   Short forays (flies out from perch and returns)
   Jerks tail or body (repeated dipping of body, or flipping or pumping of tail)
   Occurs in flocks (from 4 or 5 to thousands)

Calls and Signals
   Rasping harsh calls
   Smooth, clear calls (can be imitated by human singing voice or whistling)
   Soft, low calls
   Staccato and twitter call (short sharp notes or rapid series of notes: tinkling, trilling, sputtering, or percussive)

   High or thin song (high pitched and weak; lisping, sizzling, or hissing quality)
   Harsh or buzzy song (pitch intermediate; rasping, buzzing, or grating quality)
   Melodious song (pitch variable; smooth, sweet, or rich quality; pattern generally complex)

If you want to clear your choices, hit

Still stuck? You might try posting to Bird Forum, it's extremely likely you'll get a reply. You can also post to the Bird Identification Help Group on Flickr.

There are many other useful sites on the web having to do with birding. Cornell's Lab of Ornithology Birding 1,2,3 site is an excellent introduction for beginning birders, pointing out what to look for when identifying birds. They also have a comprehensive bird guide available online. Other useful sites include Bird Checklists of the U.S. (and Canada), Jim Rosso's photo collection, Tony Phillips' bird songs site. Ryan Haines (my older son) wrote a free Android phone app for this program - nice and small. For more elaborate birding apps, see this review - the links and comments here are also quite helpful.

This bird database is not all-encompassing; it contains about 300 of the 500 or so species of birds found in the eastern parts of the U.S. and Canada. Also, all the juvenile, morph variants, etc. are not included. The idea is to get you thinking about observing various characteristics, and to help you get started identifying a particular bird you have seen.

If you find any errors or want to add more birds, write me. The database and perl program that runs here is free to download, and is fairly simple to figure out where and how to add birds.

The database used here is derived from the "Quick-Key Guide to Birds," by John T. Emlen and David Archbald, Doubleday Press, 1967 (long out of print, unfortunately). A large number of corrections and additions have been made to the original data. A Bird Quiz Program is also available, which lets you test and improve your knowledge. There are also identification programs for wildflowers and trees.

I started this project back in 1984, believe it or not, and am doing it purely for fun. If you like this program enough to feel like showing your appreciation, please consider becoming a member of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Membership includes a subscription to their beautiful magazine "Living Bird". I have no affiliation with this fine institution; rather, I've enjoyed their lectures, classes, and have been impressed by their worthwhile projects the past two decades.

last updated May 5, 2012
Eric Haines, [email protected]