Baltimore OrioleOne of the really fun parts of this hobby is to watch for new species of birds that may show up in your yard.   During different times of the year, you are likely to see a wide variety of birds.  Some may be living nearby.  Others are just passing through in migration.

But it’s also wonderful to be able to watch the behavior of your “regulars” who live in your yard or come to the bird feeders. To do all this, there are two essential pieces of gear you’re going to need….

1.  A good pair of binoculars

2.  A bird identification book (field guide)

We’re going to cover binoculars in the next section, so check our binoculars page.   As for bird I.D. field guides, there are many good ones.  In fact, almost too many!  When I got started in birdwatching many years ago, there was only one good guide – The Peterson Guide to eastern birds.  That’s still a very good one.  But there are others.

How To Pick A Field Guide

With all the choices out there, how do you pick the right bird I.D. field guide?  First, you’ll need to look for one that covers birds in your region of the country.  Some of the main bird guides have separate versions for eastern and western birds (the dividing line is often the Mississippi River).  But a lot of them cover all of North America.

Second, decide whether you want an “all inclusive” guide that covers ALL the birds in your area – not just common backyard birds.   You may want a “full” field guide if you are going to occasionally visit some birdwatching spots where there are a lot greater variety of birds.  A “full, all inclusive” guide will have all the water birds, warblers, birds of prey, ducks, etc.

Third, some people prefer photo’s of birds vs. drawings.  There are advantages to both.  The Peterson, Sibley, and National Geographic guides use illustrations (very good ones too!) while the Kaufman, Stokes, and National Audubon Society guides have photographs.

Fourth, if you want just a simple guide for your area, consider the Adventure Publications series by Stan Tekiela that offer guide for many of the U.S. states.

Fifth, finally, consider the size of the field guide.  Some are smaller format and easier to carry in the field (Peterson, Kaufman)  Others are bulky but contain more information and pictures (Sibley, Stokes, Crossley).  If you’re mainly going to use the book in and around your home, size won’t be much of an issue for you.  Size of text could be an issue if you have trouble reading small print.  In that case, the Peterson series makes a large format edition.

Here are our recommendations for the best all-inclusive field guides:

Best Bird Field Guides


Note that the Sibley, National Geographic, and Peterson Guides also have separate eastern and western guides available too.

How To Identify Birds You See

Okay, so now you have your field guide and binoculars and you’re looking out into your yard.  Then, suddenly you see a bird you’ve never seen before at the top of your dogwood tree.  How do you find it in your field guide?

The first thing you should do is go through your field guide to familiarize yourself with the general groups of birds and what their overall appearance is.  This will help you to narrow down the bird by group when you see it through the binoculars.  For instance, all sparrows are around the same size and shape.  And shorebirds generally have longer legs and beaks and walk around on the ground.

What you want to do is look at the bird and note a variety of characteristics (known as field marks) that will be highlighted for each bird in the book.  Try to remember as much as you can before looking in the book.  But if you need to check a specific field mark, you can look again at the bird if it’s still in view.

Here are some of the field marks and other identification criteria you can use:

Color and Pattern of Feathers

Distinctive feather patternThis is pretty obvious, but note the different colors of each area of the bird and whether there are patterns like stripes, spots, streaks, or other unique features in the feathers.   Look especially at the face, head, and wings for features like eye stripes, masks, “caps” of different colors, and wing bars.   I’ve shown the peacock picture to the left to show an extreme example of what I mean.  Although not a native bird, this color and pattern is about as distinctive as it gets!

Shape and Size of beak

A bird’s beak shape, length, and thickness is often unique to each group or family of birds.  Warbler beaks (for example) are sharp and thin.  Finch beaks are short and stubby.  Heron beaks are long and dagger-like.  A lot of this has to do with the common foods they eat.  Also, note the length of the beak relative to the head.  This often helps when other characterisitcs are the same.

Length and Color of the legs

This can be a key identifying factor in certain birds that look alike.

Overall size and shape

In the field guide, each bird’s overall length is noted.  So, try to estimate in inches how big the bird is you saw.  And the shape can be a giveaway too.  Some birds are very stocky while others are pretty lean.  Other birds have long necks that will help you narrow down the species.


Hearing the bird can be another key identifying feature.   Most field guides will describe the sound the bird makes.  Note that “calls” are often a series of short notes vs. “songs” that are a longer vocalization.  Learning bird calls and songs will take time to learn.  But, there are CD’s of bird songs that you can buy to help teach you what each bird sounds like.

Flight Pattern

Some birds have very unique flight patterns that can help in identification.  For example a goldfinch flies in a distinct looping pattern.   Woodpeckers have slow up and down wingbeats and usually fly in direct lines.  Also, some birds frequently fly in flocks whereas others usually fly solo or with a mate.


This is a biggie.  What a bird is doing can be a decisive identifier.  For instance, some species of warblers (like the Palm) bob their tails up and down constantly.  Also, Towhees often scratch around in the leaf litter in your garden looking for food.

Range Map

Field Guide range mapEach field guide has maps showing where each bird is normally found – usually in both breeding season and non-breeding season.  So, if you’ve narrowed down a bird to a few species, the range map can sometimes be the determining factor in finalizing your I.D.   So, if you see what you think is a certain bird, but the map shows that it is normally found hundreds of miles to the south that time of year, it’s probably not the right bird.

Make A Yard List Of Birds You’ve Seen

I think a fun thing to keep track of is a list of all the bird species Bird Checklistyou’ve seen in your yard over the years.  These can be birds you see just passing through or regular residents.  My only rule for my list is that the bird must at some point be within the borders of my property, but can be flying directly above.   Download this Backyard Bird List sheet and print it off to start yours today.  There’s room for up to 60 birds, so you better get out and start birdwatching!


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology