When it comes to backyard bird identification, a lot of people will rush off to find their field guide as soon as they see a bird that that they don’t immediately recognise. The trouble is by the time they’ve found their guide, the bird may well have moved on.
So the best thing to do when you see an unknown bird species is to quickly write down everything you can about it and make quick sketches too. Label the sketches with the different colors of the bird on the different parts of its body. Don’t worry if you’re not a very good artist, you just need to get the main details down on paper.
Then you can later check your field guide to try and identify the bird, armed with all the information you need. Or you can use our backyard bird identification guide below to help you. This features pictures and details of all the most common backyard birds of North America.
Backyard bird identification guide
The American crow is completely black all over, including the legs and bill. It has long legs, a thick straight bill and its short tail is rounded at the end.
The American goldfinch has a small head and bill and a short tail, though the wings are long. The forehead is black, as are the wings which also have white markings. The male body is bright yellow in spring and summer, while the female is duller yellow underneath and an olive color above. In winter, the bird is brown with black wings.
The American robin is a thrush with gray-brown upper parts and a rich red breast. The belly is white. The head is black with white patches around the eyes. The throat is white with black streaks. The tail and legs are long.
The black-capped chickadee is a tiny bird with a very large head in comparison to its body and a short neck and long thin tail. It has a gray back, wings and tail. The head has a black cap and bib, with white cheeks. The bill is short and thick.
The blue jay is an intelligent bird which has a large crest and a wide, rounded tail. As it’s name suggests it is mainly blue in color, with various shades and also some black and white. It is a white or light gray color underneath.
The brown-headed cowbird is a small blackbird with a thick head and a short, thick bill. The head is brown and the rest of the body a glossy black. The tail is shorter than other blackbirds. The female is plain brown.
The Carolina chickadee looks very similar to the black-capped chickadee with a black cap and bib and gray back, wings and tail. The black-capped chickadee is brighter in appearance and slightly larger. The head is also bigger and fluffier.
The Carolina wren is small with a round body, long tail and long thin bill. The upper body is a red-brown color with no pattern and underneath is buff/tan in color. They have a long white stripe above the eye and the throat and chin are also white.
A large blackbird, the common grackle has a long tail and legs and stout bill. The female is a little smaller than the male. The common grackle appears black from a distance, but the head is purple and the upper body is bronze and shows green and purple. The eye is a gold color.
With its round head and short, thick bill, the dark-eyed junco is a medium-sized sparrow. There is a wide variation in plumage according to location but they are generally dark gray or brown in color with white outer feathers, a pink bill and a fairly long, notched tail.
The downy woodpecker has a straight chisel-like bill that is smaller than other woodpeckers. Their wings are black with a white checker-board pattern and the head has broad stripes. They have a wide white stripe down the middle of their back and the male has a small red patch on the head.
The European starling has a short, dark tail. The upper body is dark and shiny with green and purple visible in bright light. The bill is stout and bright yellow. The feet and legs are orange-red to bright red. The wings are short and pointed.
The hairy woodpecker is a medium sized black and white woodpecker. It has black wings that are checkered with white, a black back with a large white stripe running down it and a black head with two white stripes. The beak is long and chisel-like and the head square. The hairy woodpecker looks very similar to the downy woodpecker but is larger and has a longer beak.
The house finch has a short, conical bill. The male has a red face and upper breast. The back and tail are brown with white streaks. The female is a gray-brown with streaks. Compared to other finches, the notch in the tail is relatively short.
The house sparrow has a thick, conical bill and short legs. The body is stocky and the head is large and gray in color. The back and wings are brown with streaks of buff and black. The underparts are gray-brown. The female is a more plain brown overall.
With it’s small head and slender tail, the mourning dove is a graceful bird common throughout North America. They are a light brown or tan color with black spots on their wings. They are fast and straight flyers and forage for seeds on the ground.
With a long tail, short thick bill and prominent red crest, the northern cardinal is a fairly large bird. The male is bright red all over with a black mask on its face around the bill. The female also has a black or gray face but its body is a dullish brown or tan color.
The northern mockingbird has a small head with a long, thin bill that curves slightly downwards. The wings are short and round. This medium-sized songbird has an overall brown-gray color which is paler on the underparts. The wings have white patches on them.
The red-bellied woodpecker is easily identified with its bold black and white wings and back and red head and neck. The underparts are gray-ish white, paler on the female than the male.
The red-winged blackbird is a stocky blackbird. The male is a glossy black color with distinctive red and yellow markings on the shoulders. The female is a plain brownish color all over.
The song sparrow is a medium sized sparrow that is mostly brown in color. The white chest has thick brown streaks on it as do the flanks. The song sparrow has a long, rounded tail. The head is rounded and the bill is short and stout.
The tufted titmouse is a small silver-gray bird with a white breast. The head is large with a pointed crest. The bill is short and thick, and there is a black patch just above it. The flank has an orange-rust color on it.
The white-breasted nuthatch is a small bird with a white face and breast. The nape and crown are black while the upper body is a blue-gray color. The female tends to be duller than the male. The tail is short and the bill is long, thin and slightly up-turned.
The white-throated sparrow is a medium sized sparrow with striped brown upper parts. The head has a black and white striped crown, with yellow spots between the bill and the eyes. The throat is white and the underside is gray. Both the tail and the legs are long.
The best way to undertake backyard bird identification is not necessarily to run to your field guide as soon as you see an unfamiliar bird in your yard. Instead, continue to watch the bird and jot down as many details about it as you can while you can still see it. Include quick sketches too; don’t worry – they don’t have to be artistic masterpieces! Then you can use your field guide, or this page, to identify the bird at your leisure later on.