Using Color Patterns to Identify Birds

Every bird that you see is surely included in the field guide that you have.

It would be a good idea if you can start focusing on the patterns rather than trying to compare every feather.

One image or a fleeting glimpse of a bird can provide with you with enough information. When you see a bird, the overall pattern of dark and light will be available for you to take in. If the light permits, you probably could also glimpse the main colors and this could help you start with the identification.

Make use of these quick and small glimpses in building up a hunch on the mystery bird, even if all you got was a flash sight as it flew across your path before vanishing into the underbrush. If the bird hops back into your view, you can look for something else that can conclude your identification.


Let’s say you are walking through a western forest, and bright-yellow small bird came to view. The color could immediately suggest that you saw a warbler or probably a Western Tanager. You got to ask yourself a few questions though before you can start deciding on the ID. First did you see if there is a slight grayness or glossy blackness in the head? If so, you can start jumping to conclusion that what you saw could either be a Wilson’s Warbler or a MacGillivray’s Warbler.

There are some birds that have very slight differences and it may require some practice to know these differences. It is recommended that you don’t look for such details until you have used the overall patterns in remembering what type of bird you are looking at. Learn more about how to notice patches of dark and light, the bird markings’ boldness, and to make the most out the outrageous colors.

Dark and Light

When you are trying to identify a bird it is best to focus on the general color pattern rather than trying to match every detail you see to that of the pictures in the field guide. It is best to remember that birds’ feathers wear and they do molt. The birds’ appearance may vary based on the age and their nourishment. Additionally, the light it is sitting in also can have a significant effect on what colors you are seeing.

Colors may fade in fast sightings and from a distance and sometimes what’s all you got left are dark and light. It would be better if you can get familiarized with general patterns. For instance, the American White Pelican is a large white bird with wings that have trailing black edges. Snow Geese, on the other hand may be similar in shape and color, but the black in the wings is mainly focused on the tips.

Scaup and ring-necked ducks are dark colored ducks with sides that have pale patches. Northern Shovelers on the other hand, are the opposite; they are light colored with dark patches on the side. Most birds are basically dark colored above and pale colored below – an extensive pattern in the animal kingdom that helps them in avoiding the predators. With reversed pattern, a male Bobolink, with its dark underpart and light back, looks obvious even from as far as across the field.

It is the truth that there are birds that can easily call attention with their bright colored patches in some prominent parts. A Male Red-winged Blackbird uses its vibrant shoulder patches in trying to intimidate its rival and it can easily cover up it spatches when trying to sneak around off the territory. An American Redstarts flicks its orange patches in its tail and  wings in scaring insects.

Many birds, like the Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted and Eastern towhee, American Robin, and several types of hummingbirds, flash white in their tails when they are are common and you can see them in Acorns, Northern Mockingbirds, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Golden-fronted woodpeckers, Common nighthawks, Lesser nighthawks, and the Phainopeplas.

Photo Credit: jgphaneuf