How to Identify Pictures of Birds in California


One way to familiarize yourself with common bird species in a state like California is to explore a comprehensive, illustrated bird guide of relevant focus. Learning how to focus in on diagnostic features in a photograph or painting -- which, conveniently, doesn't decide to flit away at the last second -- will come in real handy out in the countryside, when a real, flesh-and-blood bird catches your eye and your imagination both.

Things You'll Need

  • Field guide or online illustrated birding reference
  • Look at the bird's color. Some field guides are organized by hue, not taxonomic affiliation, to match the search function of the practical birder. Keep in mind that many birds molt prior to breeding season to adopt flashier colors; these are often the uniforms in which they are presented in a book, but may not correspond with a bird in the field, depending on season (see Reference 1). Many more comprehensive guides will include both breeding and non-breeding plumages. Feathers change, too, as a bird ages: It will take much study of a detailed reference, such as "The Sibley Guide to Birds" (2000), to sort out the identities of gulls along California's long coast; the juveniles of many species undergo a series of subtle but fundamental pattern shifts as they mature.

  • Look for major identifying characteristics. In addition to color, these might include plumage pattern, bill size and shape, body size, wingspan and wing shape. Many field guides will emphasize these: the crest of a Phainopepla, a musical bird of central and southern California scrub; the white on the upper wingtips of a south polar skua of the open ocean, an infrequent visitor to the shore; or the dark scimitar wings of the black swift, a ghost in a remote mountain forest. (see Reference 2)

  • Begin matching pictures with family and genus, beyond common and/or Latin name. If you can start recognizing kinship between close relatives, you'll be a more formidable birder. An unusual sighting might quickly be identified if you know among which species to browse. For example, California's thrushes are compact-bodied, big-beaked and proportionately long-legged, and their tails are stiff and alert. The state's flycatchers are tiny, with relatively broad bases to their beaks and subtle head crests.

Tips & Warnings

  • While printed field guides are the traditional, long-valued resource, the Internet now hosts many sites with splendid ornithological pictures and diagnostic tips. Seek out a reputable Web site covering California's birds, like those included in "Resources," and explore. There's no substitute for getting out into the field. Paintings and photographs typically illustrate the "ideal" bird, perfectly illuminated, replete with all the standard characteristics of its breed, enviably cooperative. After a primer on bird ID from a book or Web site, you need to glass backyard bushes and hit neighborhood trails to get a sense of what these creatures look like in the flesh.


  • "Ornithology," Frank B. Gill, 1995.
  • "The SIbley Guide to Birds," David Allen Sibley, 2000.
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