If presented with an owl, most people would recognize it as such, though maybe not knowing the particular species. The same is true of other conspicuous birds like hawks, ducks, gulls, or blackbirds. Our ability to recognize a particular bird as belonging to a larger group is KEY to becoming a successful birder. Yet if we’re new to birding, identifying these groups is not easy. For instance, can we distinguish wrens from warblers or flycatchers from thrushes? For the experienced birder, the answer is, Yes! But if you’re just beginning, the answer is probably, No!
So, if you’re a beginner, learn to see each bird as a member of a larger group (for example, hawks, herons, hummingbirds, etc.) Online birding resources and print guides group birds through biological classification (you might remember this from high school science: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). Thus, wrens belong to the family Troglodytidae, while warblers are members of family Parulidae. When you identify the particular wren or particular warbler, then you’ve identified the species (for instance, the House Wren or the Black-throated Green Warbler).
I don’t suggest that you worry, at first, with learning these Latin names or even this formal classification. Do, however, think of each individual bird as belonging to a larger group, one possessing a set of characteristics that separates it from other groups. One online birding site, for example, organizes birds by name and shape or taxonomy (biological classification). In the former, birds are grouped into 22 categories beginning with blackbirds and ending with wrens.
When I began birding, my biggest mistake was thinking I had to identify ONE bird out of potential hundreds that could be present in that season and habitat. I didn’t understand that my first step would be to identify its GROUP.
“Hmm. I wonder if that’s a wren?”
If the bird is a wren, then I need only compare it against maybe nine other species in North America. Suddenly the task becomes so much easier! So, even before you worry with buying binoculars, if you’re serious about learning, search for online birding sites or buy a birding guide (more on helpful guides later). Then study how these birds are grouped (mostly by order, family, genus, species), though you needn’t attend to that level of grouping. In other words, ask yourself, Is it a wren or a warbler? As long as you attempt to identify the individual as a member of a larger group, you’re on the right track.