Bird ID Essential to Management

|  January 1, 2008

By: Dan Collins

My interest in birds began at age 15. At that time, I simply couldn’t believe all the different species of birds living in my backyard. I was hooked. My spare time was devoted to finding and identifying as many birds as possible in their natural habitats – a hobby I still enjoy today.

Although bird management professionals (BMPs) may not need to understand the subtle differences between a Brewer’s sparrow and a chipping sparrow like a field ornithologist, they must have basic bird identification skills. For example, do you know the distinguishing characteristics of a rock pigeon vs. a mourning dove? Or a house sparrow vs. a house finch? If not, you may consider spending some additional time honing your bird identification skills.

Where to Begin

Pest identification is perhaps the most daunting task pest management professionals are asked to undertake in their daily routines.Luckily, BMPs only have a handful of important pest birds to identify. Rock pigeons (feral pigeons), house sparrows and European starlings account for the majority of pest bird calls.However, gulls (there is no such thing as a “seagull”), blackbirds, swallows, crows and woodpeckers are often elevated to pest status under certain situations.

Several good bird identification references are available to BMPs. The Sibley Guide to Birds is arguably the most comprehensive bird identification field guide. Many other good references, however, are available through the National Geographic Society and the Peterson Field Guide series. I prefer bird identification field guides with drawings over those with photographs, because drawings tend to more accurately portray important field marks used to identify birds to species level.

Once you have purchased a guide, highlight or mark the birds that could be potential pest birds. Study the field marks. Take note of sizes, shapes, habitat utilization and distribution. This is important when trying to differentiate between similar bird species.

For example, if you are summoned to a building and swallows are making nests on the interior within nooks and crannies, barn swallows are the probable culprit. Cliff swallows, by contrast, are more likely to nest on the exterior along angular lines beneath overhangs. Although the differences between these two swallow species are minute, the overall bird management plan will be completely different.

It’s important to get the GISS – general impression, size and shape – of the bird to make your initial identification. Most birds have distinctive silhouettes when flying, perching, feeding or resting. Is the bird being observed “dove-sized” or “sparrow-sized?” Does it have a rounded or angular shape? Long tail vs. short tail? You get the point.

Just like for insects, the details are important when identifying bird. Take notes and compare those notes to your field guides. Get into the field and practice identifying birds from a distance by size and shape. After a few outings, expand this technique to other pest birds. Before you know it, you’ll be able to identify most pest birds by shape alone.


BMPs should purchase high-quality binoculars as oftentimes pest birds are hundreds, if not thousands, of feet away from the observer. Consider using binoculars within the seven to eight magnification ranges, with objective lenses in the 35-to 50-mm range (i.e., 7 X 35, 8 X 42). Remember, the bigger the magnification and the larger the objective lens, the more weight is added to the binoculars.

Digital photographs provide concrete evidence of the pest bird to be managed. In addition, a photograph can be shared with more experienced BMPs to reinforce bird identification.

To summarize, basic bird identification combined with an understanding of their biology and behavior is a must for BMPs wishing to provide top-notch bird management programs. Purchase a few guides followed with in-the-field pest bird identification trips. You never know: You might become the next Roger Tory Peterson.

This article is tagged with and posted in Birds, Blackbirds, Crows, Gulls, Invasive/Occasional Species, Starlings, Swallows, Woodpeckers

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