How to Use a Bird Identification Guide

Have you ever opened a bird identification guide to look up a specific bird, only to find pages and pages of water birds or predatory birds? Flipped a few pages forward and back, hoping for something that looks closer to what you saw, but getting nowhere? If so,  prepare to be amazed. I’m going to show you how to use a bird identification guide for fun and profit. OK, maybe not profit. But definitely fun.

Table of Contents

Your Bird Identification Guide – A Forever Friend

A quality field guide is a tool you will use over and over again, but which one should you get?

Sibley Guide to Birds 2nd Edition

Sibley Guide to Birds 2nd Edition


According to the National Audubon Society, the very best overall field guide to birds is the Sibley Guide to Birds, which comes in three “flavors”: North America, East North America and West North America. It includes many superb illustrations (not photos) of each bird: as a juvenile and adult, sitting on a perch, and in flight.

Color-coded maps show where to find each bird at different times of year, and lots of descriptive text details the appearance and habits each bird. This guide is my personal favorite, but there are other highly recommended guides and you may prefer something else.

Don’t Cut to the Chase

Instead of immediately trying to identify some new bird you’ve seen, start by taking time to sit down with your new Guide and get familiar with it. Read the whole “front matter”, that is, the early content of the book that is applicable to the guide as a whole. Check the Table of Contents.

If there is a “How to Use this Book” section, definitely start there.

I would have got a lot more value out of my 1986 copy of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds – Western Region if I had only known to do that.

Instead, I was intimidated by pages of photos and silhouettes in seemingly random order, and more pages of text with no bird images at all. I quickly concluded that this book must be for “professional” or “scientific” bird watchers and went out and got the Sibley guide instead.

If I had only read the “How to Use” section first, I would have learned that this bird watching book lets you very quickly find the general shape of your target bird, see other birds with similar shapes and jump to exquisite color photographs for quick verification. I learned to use my other field guide by trial error, mostly error.

Be smarter than me and read the instructions first!

Birds of a Feather Are Found Together

Redpolls on The Sibley Guide to Birds - a bird identification guide

“I think we’re leaning toward the Common Redpoll”. Redpolls on the Sibley Guide to Birds. Photo © Scott Young. Used with permission.

Your bird identification guide may seem to be randomly organized at first or heavily weighted in favor of waterbirds, but they’re not. Bird identification guides follow a 100-year-old tradition and organize bird species by the overall shape of the birds.

The rationale comes from phylogeny, a “hypothetical relationship between groups of organisms being compared.”  It sounds complicated, but all it really means is that birds that look sort of similar have long been presumed to have evolved from shared ancestors and therefore in the same “family” group of species. Genetic science is beginning to change those presumptions, but most guides still use shape as the organizing principle.

The great thing about this is that when you see a new bird that looks like one you already know, you can look up the familiar one and find similar looking birds in the same section.

Get to Know Bird Families

Now that you know your way around your Guide, take the time to get familiar with the general size and shape of major “families” of birds, such as ducks, jays, swallows and so on. If you can recognize these at a glance, it will be much easier to identify specific birds.

Once you get used to your book, it will be easy to quickly find the right section for looking up a bird, but until then it might be helpful to use stick-on tabs or notes to divide the guide into sections for water birds, large land birds and smaller land birds – or whatever divisions make sense to you.

When Not to Use Your Guide

When you spot an interesting bird, your first instinct may be to quickly whip out your new guide and try to look it up. Big mistake! Here’s why:

Once you open that guide, you’re going to see all kinds of birds that look quite similar, sorta the same, could be this one but without that white patch, et cetera. You’d have to be exceptionally lucky to find the right bird on your first try.

You’re almost certainly going to need to rely on some of the fine details of its appearance to pin down the exact species. And to get those, you need to observe the bird while it’s there.

Your field guide will always be there, but the bird will probably flit away within a few seconds or minutes so take advantage of that time to get as much distinctive detail as you can. (Hint: Not sure what to look for? Check out How to Watch Birds Like a Boss on this site.)

When in Doubt, Look At the Map

Black-headed Grosbeak by Bill Bouton via Wikimedia Commons

Black-headed Grosbeak – by Bill Bouton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


A bird identification guide will usually include maps that indicate where the bird is found, and some include winter, summer and migratory ranges too. Maps in my Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America also include gray areas that indicate where the bird may make a rare appearance.

Here’s why the maps can be useful – in 2005 I noticed a beautiful orange and black bird at one of my feeders. Since I knew nothing about identifying birds back then, I flipped through my Sibley guide until I found a picture that seemed to match, which turned out to be a Baltimore Oriole. That was an exciting moment, since I live in the Pacific Northwest.

Then I looked at the map and discovered that the Baltimore Oriole is never found in my vicinity. Not even rarely.  Dang. Back to square one.

Eventually I noticed the bird’s armor-piercing beak and decided it might be a grosbeak. Which it was.


A bird identification field guide is an incredibly useful books, but unlike the dictionary, using it is not very intuitive. There are many very good field guides, each one a little different. Find the one that suits you and spend some time digging into what it has to offer. You’ll get so much more out of your birding experiences if you do.

Do you have a favorite guide and if so, why do you like it? Please share your faves in the comments below.

Top image by April Wickes

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  1. Hi and thanks for your page. I can’t say I’ve been very successful when I’ve tried to identify different birds, but I do really enjoy observing them. You mention some guides for North America – do you know where I could go to find out what the best guide for Australia would be?
    Thanks again for your page.

    • Hi Melissa,
      A handful of good guides to Australian birds have been around for some time:

        The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds
        Graham Perry and Frank Knight’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia
        The Simpson and Day Field Guide to the Birds of Australia
        Morcombe Field Guide Australian Birds

      But a new book just out last year, the Australian Bird Guide by Menkhost et al, looks set to become the leader of the pack. You can read an excellent review of it here:

      I hope this helps!

  2. Joy,
    I have used this book for years. I have several bird feeders and bird houses in my yard. My 12 year old son knows that if he sees a bird he does not know, this book is where to find the information.
    When you find a nest in the yard or woods, if you use this book properly, you can find out the type of bird by the construction or egg shells you find on the ground.
    Where is your favorite place to bird watch.

    • Hi John,
      I did not know that about the eggs – how do you look that information up in your guide?

      I watch birds everywhere I go, but my favorite place is my back deck.

  3. Great story and a topic I am very familiar with. I also use the Sibley Guide and have done so for many years. When my daughter was young, bird watching was a family event and we kept the guide and 3 pairs of binoculars on the coffee table. It was a lot of fun and educational too. Now my daughter is teaching her children about birds and there are bird feeders everywhere there is an appropriate limb to hang them on.
    Great article. It brought back a lot of fond memories. Thank you.

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