Perhaps the hardest habit to break is attempting to describe a bird based on colors, at least initially.  We’re all guilty of this.  Novice / beginner birders write and state inquiries such as the bird had a lot of yellow on its wings. Wow that’s a tough starting point!  Breaking this habit may not be easy but persistence in listening to bird calls, observing behavior, noting size and shape, location and date will all help you in becoming a better birder.

Here’s  a few of the most helpful questions you’d want to ask yourself:

  1. What time of year was the bird seen down to the day if possible, can be very helpful.  Many birds are not present year round.  Types of waterfowl are an example
  2. Where was the bird seen with respect to geographic area? At the coast, desert, on a lake, suburban area, in a canyon, mountainous walk trail, marsh area, etc.
  3. What was the size of the bird?
    1. Tiny
    2. Small
    3. Medium
    4. Large
    5. Huge
  4. Was the bird high up in a tree (5 feet, 10 feet or 80 feet up)? Was he or she vocalizing (calls or song) on the ground and digging in the dirt?
  5. Sometimes these other descriptive facts will also help such as these examples:
    • the Head – think of human head – birds can have a mustache, eye brow as some basic examples.
      • the Eye – was there an eye ring or a sharp contrasting eye brow?
      • the Bill – was it small and shaped like a cone or long and possibly curved upward or downward?
    • the Tail – was it constantly bobbing or was it an occasional flick up and down or perhaps sticking straight up or down without movement
    • the Song or Call – was it loud and melodic, harsh or a high pitch chirp.  All birds have unique Songs (usually melodious and likely not a single note or a chip sound) though some have Calls can overlap such as the Song Sparrow and Lincoln Sparrow.  A song or a call can help identify the species almost immediately.  Most Smart Phones have a Voice Recorder.  Use this option whenever possibly and record what you are hearing.  It could eliminate the need for all steps in your identification process.  Learning and memorizing songs / calls on the other hand comes with constant repetition of seeing and hearing the bird.  I’ve gotten to a point where I can walk for an hour, not see a single bird and hear calls only.  Yet, without vision, I can typically and accurately ID the bird if on a local walk or at least narrow it down to a species such as Sparrow, Warbler, Raptor, etc.
    • Also, 3 specific ID Points are always best (or more) to make a proper ID. such as leg color, bill shape, location, etc.
  6. And finally, the colors or as some would say “plumage” of a species.  However breaking down the sections of the bird with a color description is best such as “I saw a medium sized raptor like bird, that had grayish topside wings, all white throat and belly with yellow claws”.  A mouthful of info but the more the merrier as they say as this might lead me to think it could be a White-tailed Kite.

Here’s a basic example using this Bay-breasted Warbler as my subject indicating basic sections of  this Passerine (songbird).  This is not a common bird by the way but this photo was used due to its tail being pitched downward and wings upward allowing for better illustration.  The sections illustrated for this Passerine are not intended to be complete but merely basic in form.

Warbler Body Parts Markup

Bay-breasted Warbler (21831) (Side View)

Disclaimer: not all parts of this warbler are relevant for all species such as shorebirds.  There are far too many expert articles and books explaining the topography of birds.  If you have additional interest I might suggest the following link to the US Fish and Wildlife Service