How to Identify Canadian Birds

How to Identify Canadian Birds
Canada's massive land mass and impressive swaths of true wilderness support more than 400 species of birds, from the miniscule winter wren to the enormous American white pelican. Whether you're strolling an urban parkland or canoeing a sub-Arctic braided stream, identifying the feathered creature that just flashed past you can be a lot of fun.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Things You’ll Need:
  • Binoculars
  • Field guide
  • Notebook
Step 1
Take note of the general habitat you're exploring when you see a bird. While individual birds may show up in landscapes unusual for their species, knowing your eco-zone can help narrow the possibilities. A slender, long-tailed raptor in a deciduous forest would more likely be a Cooper's hawk than a northern harrier, and vice versa in a billowing shortgrass prairie or tundra.
Step 2
Scribble down the bird's color and the pattern of its plumage. Intricate details of feather hue can make the difference in accurate identification. Both of Canada's shrike species, for example, have black masks banding their eyes and beaks, but the northern shrike has a narrow white marking below its eyeand the loggerhead shrike does not.
Step 3
Listen for any calls the bird might make. Especially with songbirds, specifics of vocalization can be the ultimate factor in making an ID. Experienced birders with well-honed ears can tell a species on sound alone. Although western and eastern meadowlarks don't generally overlap in their respective Canadian ranges, they are a classic example of the value of practicing bird-song identification. These near-identical species sing surprisingly different melodies--one of their least subtle divergences.
Step 4
Consider the bird's size and shape. Against the sun, soaring eagles and vultures look mighty similar---but Canada's eagles (bald and golden) are substantially larger than its turkey vultures. Body shape, including the craft of the wing, is a powerful identification tool that can distinguish swallows from swifts (the former with larger tails and broader wings), or great blue herons from cranes (the heron flies with its neck coiled, whooping and sandhill cranes with theirs extended).

Tips & Warnings

Snapping a photograph of the bird in question is a good way to improve your chances of reliable identification. So is a quick sketch in your field notebook to accompany a written description. Always remember, though, to really look at the bird. Fumbling with the viewfinder or the field guide prematurely can waste precious time when the real, flesh-and-blood creature is still in sight.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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