For beginning birders, the easiest way to identify a bird is by color. Northern Cardinals are red, American Goldfinches are yellow, Eastern Bluebirds are blue. (After all, that’s why they’re called bluebirds!) Identifying birds by color is common, easy, and useful.
In fact, perhaps I shouldn’t have put “beginning” in my introduction, because color reigns supreme as an identification tool for birders at any level.
However, you can’t assume that, just because a bird is blue, it’s a bluebird. And you can’t assume that just because a bird isn’t (mostly) blue, that it’s NOT a bluebird!
In this post, I want to talk about using color as a field identification mark, and when it works versus when it doesn’t. Because you absolutely should identify birds by color, you just shouldn’t rely on it 100%.
Color is Easy to See (For Most of Us)
The reason that color is so useful, is that it’s easy for most of us to see. Unless you have some form of colorblindness, or you’re birding in near-dark conditions, it’s generally a sure-fire identification field mark.
No one looks at a male cardinal and says it’s black. Nor do people look at blue jays and think they’re orange. (Well, some creative Photoshopper decided to fool about fifty percent of Pinterest users into thinking that there are rainbow blue jays, but that’s another story!)
Sure, there are other field marks, like shape, size, and markings. These are harder for various reasons, however:
- Shape takes some experience. I think many people know the difference between the shape of a songbird and an eagle. But it’s much harder to differentiate an eagle from a hawk. And within the songbird (aka passerine) group, how many people can distinguish a sparrow from a thrush, or a warbler from a bunting? Those are much harder and take time to learn.
- Size is too subjective. I mean, a bird is the size it is, but our perception of it depends on a lot of things, like distance, movement, and relations to known objects that may be close to the bird (or not so close)
- Field marks are hard to learn, and also sometimes hard to see without a scope or binoculars. Words like “eyerings” and “wingbars” can make a new birder’s head spin!
For that reason, color is one of the first ways we learn to identify birds.
When is a Blue Bird not a Bluebird?
There are lots of blue birds. In Florida, where I live, you have three blue bird species year round: the eastern bluebird, the blue jay, and the Florida scrub jay. If you add in wintering birds, you’ll have to include the indigo bunting, the blue grosbeak, and the purple martin in certain light. Outside of Florida, that list gets even bigger.
Expand your pool of candidates to include other birds that aren’t songbirds, and you will find even more blue birds. Examples are the great blue heron, little blue heron, tri-colored heron, gray-headed swamphen, and the purple gallinule, all of which are wading birds you’ll find near water.
Even the belted kingfisher is mostly blue, and it’s small enough to look a bit like a songbird! (It’s in the order Coraciiformes, however, and songbirds generally refers to anything in the order Passeriformes, aka passerines.)
Each and every one of those species is a blue bird.
But only one is a bluebird.
When is a Non-Blue Bird Actually a Bluebird?
It also might surprise you to know that eastern bluebirds aren’t always blue! Granted, they generally have some blue on them at any stage. But a juvenile bluebird is gray with white spots, with only a bit of blue on its wings. An immature or female bluebird (difficult to tell apart) is more orange and brown than blue. In fact, even the adult male looks more orange and brown if you look at it directly from the front!
Give Me More Examples!
OK, no problem! Here’s one example:
Often, in this part of the world, an almost-all red bird is a cardinal. Why? Because they are common, they’re relatively large, and they readily come to feeders so they’re easy to see.
Are all red birds cardinals? Certainly not!
Consider the summer tanager:
Or the scarlet tanager:
Or the vermillion flycatcher:
All of these are bright, mostly-red birds, but they aren’t Northern cardinals!
Another example is the bald eagle. Sure, it’s the symbol of America, and really big, but is a big bird with a white head always a bald eagle? Certainly not. Ospreys have a white head and similar habits of catching fish, and people mistake the two birds quite often. And a swallow-tailed kite has bluish-black wings with a white head, and is also a raptor (bird of prey), so it can be mistaken too. In my opinion, these are a little more of a stretch, but by no means uncommon.
So Can I Identify Birds by Color or Not?
Yes…but also, no.
Your best bet when identifying a bird is to use multiple field marks…the more, the better.
Some of these I mentioned above: shape, size, and markings that include feather patterns, eye-rings, and wing-bars. You should also consider the habitat, behavior, food sources, and anything else that may be different between two species that have the same color.
That said, because color is an easy way to help identify birds, you should definitely use it whenever you can. Just don’t rely on it 100% alone.