How to Identify Birds - Tips for Beginners


It can be pretty daunting, you are out on a bush walk or even in your own backyard and you hear a strange call or see a small flash flitting through the tree canopy - how on earth are you supposed to know what that was?  The good thing is, you don't need to know anything about a bird to appreciate its beauty and to take joy from watching it. But as you start to take notice of the bird life around you, you may start to get curious, to wonder what that bird is and how it lives. If you follow the tips and guidelines below you will be able to identify any bird you see.


The more often you see birds, the better you will become at it - practice makes perfect!  But you don't need to go for a long bushwalk (though it makes great exercise). Make a cup of tea, go and sit out in the backyard and get your eyes and ears to adjust to what is going on in your garden. You will be amazed at what you will start to notice as soon as you pay attention. The time it takes to drink a cup of tea is perfect for doing a Birds in Backyards 20 minute bird survey too!

Get the Gist

Take your time and watch the bird for as long as you can before furiously flicking through a field guide or jumping on the Birds in Backyards Bird Finder. The longer you can watch the bird and make mental notes of any features you see, the more complete your picture of the bird will be. Jot down notes if you can, but keep focussed on the bird. Look for:

  • Size and shape - compare it to something you already know. Is it the size of a magpie or tiny like a wren? What sort of silhouette does it have? Is it shaped like a duck or like a bird of prey?
  • Distinguishing features - once you have a general outline of the bird, take notice of finer details. Look for colours and markings - check the tummy, head, back, chest, outer tail feathers, legs, eyes and feathers around the eyes for different colors and markings like stripes or spots. Look for anything unusual such as a crest or wattles on the side of the face.
  • Beak - the shape of a bill can tell you alot about the type of bird. For example, honeyeaters generally have those long curved bills, birds of prey have short hooked bills, seed-eaters have short stocky bills for cracking seed and insect-eaters often have short, narrow beaks, sometimes with whiskers.

Use your Ears

You will generally hear more birds than you see and some birds you will only be alerted to because they call. By learning bird calls in your area can quickly get an idea of what birds are in an area before you start a walk and if you hear something that you don't know, you can direct your search to the area the call was coming from. Birds like the Eastern Whipbird hide in dense vegetation and can be very tricky to spot, but they are very vocal and so it is easy to know when they are around.

There are a range of bird call CD's available and Birds in Backyards has a range of bird calls on our fact sheets and on our Top 40 bird songs page. You will notice on that page that calls are broken up into different types of tones - think about what category your mystery bird falls into.

Behaviour and Attitude

Each bird species doesn't only look unique, it has a unique way of behaving, moving, flying and feeding. By spending some time just watching a bird as it moves around, you can soon get a feel for what makes it tick. Pretty soon you will be able to identify that bird at just a glance. So don't be rushed to make an observation, ID the bird and move onto the next one - relax and watch the bird as long as you can.

  • Behaviour - how does the bird act? Does it hang about a tree alone or it is just one of a huge flock? Some birds like finches look constantly nervous, always on alert for approaching danger whereas a Tawmy Frogmouth stays still regardless of the activity around it.
  • Movement - watching a bird move around its habitat can tell you alot about it. It can allow you to see new features previously hidden by a perched bird and you can note its attitude. Think of how a Crested Pigeon bobs its head when it walks or how a Willie Wagtail shakes its tail when it scurries across the lawn.
  • Flight - some birds have a very distinct flight pattern, and seeing them in the air is a giveaway to their identity. Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos have a long and loping flight with a slow wing beat. Rainbow Lorikeets fly straight and fast, whilst Pelicans are often seen soaring in circles up plumes of warm air.
  • Feeding - if you are watching a bird for a while, chances are you will see it feed. Welcome Swallows are what we call 'Hawkers' - they catch birds on the wing, Robins are 'Pouncers' - they pounce from a perch or tree trunk down onto insect prey and then return to their position.


Many birds are fussy and will only live in specific habitats. Before you even go birdwatching you can focus in on the birds that are likely to live in that habitat. When identifying something new, always look at the distribution map in your field guide or on the Birds in Backyards fact sheet as these will, at a quick glance, rule out those living outside your location. They will also indicate the types of habitats that the potential bird likes to live in. In our urban landscape we have lots of birds that like to live in a whole variety of habitats - it is often that flexibility that makes them so successful. Of course you can use the habitat you create in your garden to encourage particular birds in  - see our Creating Places section for lots more information.

Don't Panic!

You won't be able to identify every bird you see, sometimes they don't stay long enough for us to see them properly. The good news is that bird watching is a life long endevour so there will always be something to see.

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