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Birdwatching: Identify your Subjects

Updated: Jul 6, 2023


Birdwatching can be an excellent way to connect with nature and for some, it's a source of stress relief. It can also be a form of stress if you can’t figure out what the heck was that bird I just spent 15 minutes watching.


A bird's characteristics and appearance can vary based on age, gender, breeding, and the changing of the seasons. Identifying birds can be difficult without assistance. The Best Source for identifying birds is reference books, but books can be heavy and cumbersome in the field. Cell phones have brought convenience to many of us and birdwatchers can be thankful as well for the many different Birdwatching apps that allow for bird identifications based on geolocation and a few questions. But cell phones have limitations as well.

Recommended Books

National Geographic Pocket Guide / Birds of North America - Smallest of all three books but limited in the number of birds. Although it is limited in the number of birds, it does provide great details for the birds it does refer to.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds - Medium in size compared to the three books and has three times the birds as the Pocket guide. This book has fewer details for each bird, but it makes up for it with more color pictures of the variations for each species of bird.

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America - Largest of the three books with more than 1000 birds. This book combines the best of all three with great details and many color pictures of the many variations of birds, but at a price. This book is large and heavy.

DK Birds of North America - Largest of the four books, but also the best. This beautiful bird-watching book includes stunning full-color photographs of over 650 birds, revealing each species with unrivaled clarity. A lavish introduction describes bird characteristics and behavior, while stunning full-color photographs reveal individual species for easy identification. The 550 most commonly seen birds are pictured in clear, close-up photographs, with images of similar birds provided to make differentiation easy, from game birds and waterfowl to shorebirds and swifts to owls, hummingbirds, finches, and so many more. Also includes a Bird Sounds Audio App.

Recommended Apps for your Phone

Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab - This app claims to have over 8,500 different bird species. The default Bird ID feature starts with a location request and prompts you for the size and then color(s) of the bird in question. The App will then provide the birds that are within that area. It provides actual photos of the birds which makes Identification a breeze. Other useful features are ID with a photo and ID with a sound. The app is fairly accurate but I have had problems finding the actual bird I was looking at and had to spend a little time changing my question responses and scrolling through many photos of birds to find what I was looking for.

Audubon Bird Guide - This app has 800 bird species, which is far fewer than the Merlin app, but has more “filters” to help you locate the bird in question. When you do find your subject it provides more details than the Merlin App. The downside to this app is that it doesn't allow for ID via the "Sound" or "Photo" of the bird, unlike the Merlin app.

Both these apps allow you to keep track of the birds you have come across for future reference.


Being a photographer allows me to take a picture of the bird and identify it later at home where I have the resources at hand and not have to worry about carrying heavy books or hoping my phone has enough battery life or if I have cell service to use the many features the apps provide. Once at home, I don't just have access to all my reference books, but the internet as well. A great website to visit is Audubon's Guide to North American Birds.

The Audubon website has a cool new feature that allows you to see the bird's current range for both summer and winter plus you can adjust for climate change to see how it would affect the bird's range.

Tips & Tricks

With the use of a small Bluetooth speaker and your cell phone loaded with either the Merlin or Audubon apps, you can play bird sounds and songs to help attract birds into viewing range.

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