Wisconsin Bird Identification

Wisconsin Bird Identification
Wisconsin enjoys a beautiful diversity of landscapes: the sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky shores of two Great Lakes; gently-rolling glacial prairie and hardwood forest; sandy pine and oak savannas; marshes, swamps, bogs, and lakes; and the dense hardwood- and conifer-mosaic of the northwoods. Such variety sustains many birds, from the terns and gulls of Lake Michigan beaches to the snowy owls that sometimes sweep in during lean winters from the boreal forest and tundra. Read on for a few tips on identifying the Badger State's avian residents.


Difficulty: Easy

Things You’ll Need:
  • Binoculars Field guide
  • Binoculars
  • Field guide
Step 1
Be aware of the habitat you're exploring when you spot a bird. The greater prairie-chicken and rugged grouse superficially resemble one another, but the former inhabits Central and Northern Wisconsin wet prairies, while the latter haunts deeper timber. For types difficult to differentiate, like sparrows, habitat notes can be a great tool for weighing options and making educated guesses.
Step 2
Consider geographic location, along with habitat. Common ravens and American crows, which are close relatives, can sometimes be difficult to distinguish at a distance, but the former---which are substantially larger and bulkier---are usually found only from Wisconsin's Central Forest north, whereas crows are ubiquitous. Thus, a ragged black bird of rude voice spotted in the Baraboo Hills is more likely to be a crow than a raven. But in the Chequamagon National Forest in the northern reaches, you'll have to look more closely to make an identification.
Step 3
Note the general size and shape of the bird, of course. Wisconsin's species range from tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds (around three grams) to massive trumpeter swans (which may breach 30 pounds). Even a quick impression can at least narrow the playing field to a particular order, family or genus.
Step 4
Key into plumage characteristics. For experienced birders, or those with a particularly visible animal, these can winnow even closely related options to a single species. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, for example, are of similar stature and behavior as the hairy woodpecker, which shares a black-and-white checkered body, but the sapsucker has red bands on its forehead (and chin, in males). A subtle but defining feature---just the type seasoned birders look out for.
Step 5
What's the bird doing? General observations about behavior can assist in making an ID. A bird glimpsed scuttling up and down a tree trunk, even if plumage or body shape features are missed, might be likely called a woodpecker or a wren, which both exhibit such habits.
Step 6
Keep an open mind. Wisconsin lies in the heart of the North American continent, and for some distance surrounding the only notable physiographic barriers are the Great Lakes. In other words, birds more typically found hundreds of miles away on the Great Plains or in the Mississippi Delta could conceivably turn up. So consult your field guide studiously and don't get tripped up by range maps alone.

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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