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What is the bird identification tool and how do I use it?

Submitted by Peter Orchard on Thu, 15/08/2019 - 15:52


We have all been in a position when we have been out in the field and seen a bird we do not immediately recognise and so we get out our field guide and start thumbing through the pages looking for a picture that matches the bird we saw (or think we saw!). There is more to identifying birds than finding a picture match and this aid tries to help you by providing a series of filtering options which can be used to narrow down some suggestions that direct you to the best candidates to look at in your field guide. You can tap/click the species photograph to see more information about a species in the Nature of Dorset database which may also help.

Just to emphasise; this tool is not intended to provide you with a positive identification on its own and is best used with a good field guide or other identification resource (such as the RSPB website for example)


The bird identification aid offers you six questions:

  1. What type of bird was it?
  2. Can you be more precise?
  3. In which month did you see it?
  4. What was the dominant colour of the bird?
  5. What size was it?
  6. What habitat did you see it in?

For each of these questions there is a drop down list of possible answers from which you can choose. Once you have made your selections click/tap 'Apply' and potential candidate species will be displayed. You can swipe through the possibles to see if you can find a probable and from there you may want to look in your field guide for more information or, alternatively, click/tap the species photograph to see what information the Nature of Dorset has on that species.

You can answer as many of the questions as you feel you can and the system will then present an array of photographs for birds that match the answers you have given. The more information you give the tighter the selection of possible candidates you will receive however, if you are too precise your choice may be too narrow especially if one of the selections is not totally 'correct' (see notes below about size and colour). You may find it is best to answer just two or three and look at the options presented to start with and narrow down further if you need to. You can, of course, try a different combinations of answers and see if there are overlaps with some species occurring in all the combinations you use!

Answers to these questions can be very subjective and your perception may not match mine and therefore be prepared to try different answers and different combinations of answers if you do not find what you are looking for with your first attempt. Birds have wings and are mobile and can turn up anywhere any time. Statistically you are most likely to see common species but you should always expect the unexpected! This guide contains about 250 of the birds most likely to be seen in Dorset, be very sure of your facts before you decide it is a species not in this list.

This aid is based on MY observations in DORSET (England!) and as a result:

  • It will not be a comprehensive list, only those 250 or so species that are most likely to be seen in Dorset
  • The data is Dorset based and may not be true for other counties in the United Kingdom but it may still be a useful tool for people living in other parts of the country
  • The data given can only be general as the mobility of birds means they can turn up in unexpected places at unexpected times of the year


What type of bird is it?

This gives you a chance to restrict the options to 'general' types of bird: seabirds, waders, birds of prey and so on

Can you be more specific?

If you can be a little more precise this is a range of more detailed options: rather than seabirds you may be able to  say it was a gull, or a tern or an auk and so on

In what month did you see it?

The months in which a bird can be seen can be quite variable. 

  • The months I have specified for each species reflects what the norm is here in Dorset in a usual year 
  • The actual months a species is seen can vary each year depending on the weather and how it impacts migration and movements
  • In some years migratory species may occur in large numbers and in others may not be seen in Dorset at all
  • Not all individuals of a migratory species may actually make the journey and so may be seen outside of the anticipated months 

What was the dominant colour?

Identifying birds by the colour alone is fraught with difficulty! To ornithologists plumage it is just one of many factors taken into account in identifying a species but a casual observer will usually only notice one thing - the colour of the bird.  Here are some of the problems encountered identifying birds colour alone:

  • Peoples interpretations of a colour will undoubtedly vary. Men and women see colours differently, for example, and what I see as brown may be beige to others
  • Most birds have multiple coloured plumage and so I have tried to use the dominant colour in this aid
  • Even birds of a single general colouration will have vasts amount of variation within their feathers
  • The light and distance can affect the colour you see
  • Birds in flight reveal colours that cannot be seen whilst stationary
  • Some birds have just minimal colouration differences with other similar species
  • Colouration can vary with the age or sex of the bird

To compensate for this you may need to try different options under colour to find the bird you are looking for.

What size was it?

Size does matter when it comes to identifying birds and so I have used a simple structure to help with the process of selection of potential species based on the measurement of a typical specimen from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail; you may be surprised by the some of the placements so you may need to try a couple of examples! I have given an example of a common bird within the group to provide an easy means of comparison.

  • Less than 12cms = very small (blue tit)
  • 12-18 cms = small (house sparrow)
  • 19-28 cms = medium (blackbird)
  • 29-38 cms = intermediate (jackdaw)
  • 39-58 cms = large (carrion crow)
  • 59-78 cms = very large (pheasant)

What habitat was it seen in?

Each species of bird is adapted to eat a specific diet; it may be insects, seeds, worms, molluscs, even other birds or mammals. It follows, therefore, that you will generally find a species where its food source can be found and bird species are often linked to certain habitat types. One has to remember that birds are mobile and so can occur in places where they are not expected, especially during migration times but, in general, the assumption works. Selecting a habitat where you saw a bird, especially during the breeding season, can be an important factor in its identification.


If you are at one of the nature reserves or nature 'hot-spots' featured in the Nature of Dorset you may like to look at the species list for that site to see if anyone has reported what you are looking at previously. To do this, go to the option to "Identify a species based on where I am now".


Just to reiterate:

  • This is a guide to possible candidates for identification and NOT a definitive guide to bird identification
  • All the information is Dorset based and may not apply to other parts of the British Isles
  • The data in this guide is open to interpretation in different ways by different people so use with care
  • Tool is available for use free of charge and intended to help budding nature lovers and not established enthusiasts