Birds for Beginners: Part 3 - Abhi Madangeri

In the last part we read about the birds and their habitat, in this chapter we will learn to recognize and identify them. When my friends started joining me on my trips, they could identify only a few birds like Crow, Sparrow, Peafowl, Jungle Fowl and a couple more. For my best friend who joined me on most of my bird outings, every bird he saw was a Gubbi (Sparrow in Kannada). He would spot and show them to me saying, Orange gubbi, Yellow gubbi, Brown gubbi, Large Black gubbi, Small green gubbi, Red eyed gubbi, White bellied gubbi, Long tailed gubbi and so on. Though his unique way of naming the birds was funny, it was partially right in some way and you will soon know why.

To get started with bird identification, you will first need a field guide. Salim Ali's 'The Book of Indian Birds' is a good book for beginners to start with and take that first step into the world of birds. Later you can move on to other updated field guide like Grimett and Inskipp's 'Birds of the Indian Sub-Continent'. This article will help you narrow down on the type of bird, and then, with the help of a field guide (or Google Search if not on field) you can identify the exact species. Remember even an expert birder cannot claim to know all the birds, so never hesitate to refer a field guide or discuss the bird Id with fellow birders.

A bird's plumage (pattern, color and arrangement of feathers) can differ based on various factors like age, gender and season. In some bird species, the genders are visually different (sexually dimorphic) and mostly the adult male is more colorful than the female and they get into their best colors during their breeding season. The plumage in some birds also vary based on different phases like juvenile, immature and adults.


Apart from plumage, the size, shape of body and beak and different body parts also help in bird identification. So here is a small exercise to identify few types of birds. Try to guess the type of bird before you check the answer below.









Answer: Crow, Kingfisher, Bulbul, Pelican, Drongo, Woodpecker, Peacock, Sunbird.

This exercise was to help you understand that without even seeing the colors or the plumage, you can narrow down on the type of bird by just looking at its shape, physical characteristics and posture. Birds are classified into different groups based on these characteristics. Field guides follow a format where birds with similar shape and physical characteristics are classified under the same group and learning to identify these features and classifying them into their respective groups will help in faster and better identification of birds.

Now that we know the basics of identifying the group a bird belongs to, the following points will help us further in identifying the species.


Bird size is measured from head to tail and comparison of this size with some common birds like sparrow, dove, crow, duck, eagle, etc will help us with its identification. Here are some common birds and their size for comparison.

Sparrow: ±5 inches
Bulbul: ±7inches
Myna: ±9 inches
Pigeon: ±13 inches
Crow: ±17 inches
Kite: ±24 inches
Vulture: ±36 inches


Feathers are synonymous with birds and they are the most important feature which help in finding the bird Id. Observe the plumage for distinct patterns and marks and these identification marks will get you the exact species. Most birds are named based on the marking, type and color of the plumage like the Bulbuls can be White Browed, Yellow Browed, Ruby Throated, Black Headed, Red-vented, Red-whiskered, etc or a Drongo can be Black, Ashy, White-bellied, Racket-tailed, etc.

Believe it or not, when birders gather somewhere especially at a party, they refer to other people at the party in a similar fashion. For example: A beautiful girl with golden hair wearing a red frock may be called as Golden Headed Red Eye-catcher or an old man smoking a pipe wearing a white shirt and a black trouser as Pied Pipit. So now you know why my friend's naming convention was almost right :) 

Few external parts of a bird for quick reference for beginners:  


Beak is another important feature which not only helps in identifying a bird but also tells us about the bird's diet, behavior and habitat. Beaks are not only used for eating but also help in preening, moving objects especially while building nest, hunting, fishing, killing prey, fights, attacking intruders, courtship, probing for food, feeding their young and also hanging onto branches. Following are a few different types of beaks: 

Cracking : Birds like sparrow, munia, finch have short and thick conical beak which helps in eating seeds
Drilling : Woodpeckers have long and chisel like beak for boring into wood to eat insects
Tearing : Raptors have sharp curved beaks for tearing meat
Straining : Water birds like ducks have long flat beaks to feed in aquatic habitat 
Striking : Herons have long, slender and pointed beaks which help in fishing
Probing : Sandpipers have long and slender bills to probe for food in aquatic habitat
Sipping : Sunbirds have long slender curved beak to feed on nectar
Catching : Flycatchers have short pointed beaks for catching insects on the fly
Multipurpose : Crows have a strong thick pointed triangle shaped beak which helps them eat seeds, fruits, insects, eggs and also scavenge on fish and other animals

Apart from these, many other things like the bird call and songs, legs and feet, flight and behavior also help in identification. So observing as many details as possible along with observation of their behavior and listening to their beautiful calls is helpful.

Remember, understanding their behavior and knowing about the birds not only helps in their identification, but will also fetch you better bird pictures and most importantly, it will help you understand them better and respect their space and freedom.

Read the first and second part:

Birds for Beginners: Part 1

Birds for Beginners: Part 2

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-1 #1 Sivakumar V K 2014-10-15 15:29
Very nice!
-1 #2 R. Pradeep Kumar 2014-11-02 05:32
I am a wildlife photographer and want know more about birds.
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0 #4 JakeSmall 2017-11-23 06:24
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