Cedar waxwings are similar to starlings in size and shape. They have long, slender bodies and crested heads that help separate them from other species.

When I first picked up a camera several years ago, birds were some of my first wildlife subjects. They were readily available in my backyard and local gardens and parks, and their accessibility and numbers made them appealing—even if any particular bird didn’t stay in one place for very long.

At that time, I had very little knowledge about their identities. I used to joke that I’d seen a “brown branch-hopper,” a “redheaded bug-eater” or a “sienna snow-shoveler.” I knew what a robin was, of course—the official state bird of Wisconsin, where I live—and I could pick out a bald eagle, a Canada goose or a sandhill crane. But that was about the extent of my birding proficiency.

To make a correct ID, experts compare the bird to itself by using the individual’s body parts. For example, a hairy woodpecker’s bill is large and long relative to the width of its head. ©David A Mitchell, flickr

As time went on, though, and I sought to capture more and better images of birds, I became more interested in what kind of birds were at the other end of my lens. Today, while I’m certainly not an expert, I can name and point out a few more species than the few I could initially identify.

I wish I could have seen the video below a little sooner in my birding education. It would have helped immensely in my struggle to get to know birds. Filmed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this short production employs birding experts Chris Wood and Jessie Barry, who show you how to compare different birds and use your observations to make a confident ID. Then, you join them in the field to practice these techniques on common birds and learn how to distinguish similar species, such as a hairy versus a downy woodpecker.


In contrast with the hairy woodpecker, a downy woodpecker’s bill is short relative to the width of its head. The advantage to this strategy is that you don’t need another object or bird for comparisons.

Learn their tips, and you’ll soon be able to get the most out of your bird observations—and forever avoid photo captions such as “black-and-white headbanger.”

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,