All species within a bird family exhibit the characteristics of the family, for example, long legs, hooked beaks, sharp talons, long wings, etc. They do, however, differ from other members of the family in ways that are significant enough that they are separated from these other species by habits, breeding, size, behaviour, colour.
Identifying Bird Species
A bird species is one that breeds and associates with its own kind, and does not associate or breed with other species within the same family. This classification is common for birds, animals, insects, etc.
There are 233 families of birds, which contain over 10000 species.
All species within a bird family exhibit the characteristics of the family, for example, long legs, hooked beaks, sharp talons, long wings, etc. They do, however, differ from other members of the family in ways that are significant enough that they are separated from these other species by habits, breeding, size, behaviour, colour. They also differ from the other species by their appearance, and by their distribution within a country, or across the globe. Sometimes the differences are large and clear for all to see, sometimes the differences are slight and hard to work out. In modern ornithology, some of the differences are so slight, and can be so subjective, that DNA has to be used to confirm or refute them.
Storks are all members of the Ciconidae family. There are 19 different species, worldwide. The White Stork is the most well known species in the family. It is about 1 metre tall, has a long neck, long, bare red legs, and a long, sharply pointed red bill. The head, neck, body and underparts are white, and contrast with the black feathers of the wings. The eyes are brown. Males and females are similar in appearance. The European species breeds across many parts of Europe, west and central Africa, to the middle east. Each year this species migrates from Europe to Africa to exploit the food abundance in this region during the southern hemisphere summer, so it is absent from Europe during the northern winter. It does not breed in Africa, except for a very small population in the western Cape Province which has a Mediterranean climate.
Like the White Stork, the Black Stork has long, bare red legs, a long sharply pointed red bill and white under parts. It also has black wings. It is very slightly smaller than the White Stork, and differs from it in that the head, neck, body is black. It is also found in large parts of Europe and central Africa, where it breeds. It is a resident of South Africa, where it breeds. It migrates between Africa and Europe.
Both of these species are members of the stork family, and even though some of the places where they are found overlap one another, their habits, appearance and behaviour differ from one another, and they do not associate with one another, not do they breed with one another. They are separate species.
Identifying both the Black Stork and White Stork is easy once it has been established that the family to which the bird belongs is a stork. There are many bird books that are guides or aids to identifying the bird as belonging top the stork family, and as a White Stork, for example.
The difference between different species are not, however, always as clear as they are with the two storks, and care must be taken to look at all of the features that identify a bird to species level.
Take the sometimes confusing brown eagles, some of which migrate between Europe and Africa, and can often be found in the same habitats, close to one another. The largish Tawny Eagle has tawny upperparts and blackish flight feathers and tail, and very pale rump. It is very similar in appearance to the Steppe Eagle. The Steppe Eagle is also a largish eagle which has brown, not tawny upper parts, but has similar blackish flight feathers and tail, similar to the Tawny Eagle. It has a pale throat. Whilst the Steppe Eagle is larger and darker than the Tawny Eagle, they are so similar in appearance that only looking for differences in the fine details in their plumage colour will not be enough to allow positive identification to species level.
There are many aspects about a bird that have to be taken into account when identifying it. These are:
Colour of its plumage, legs, bare parts, bill, eyes.
Markings such as stripes, streaks, bars, spots, eye-stripes, breast-bands.
Habitat where it is seen, for example, estuary, sea-shore, river bank, open fields, mountains, swamps, lakes and dams.
Behaviour, for example, wagging the tail up and down like a wagtail, bobbing the head like an owl, hammering on wood like a woodpecker, flicking the wings like a Blackbird, hovering like a Kestrel.
Time of year – many birds migrate to the southern hemisphere from the northern hemisphere, and are therefore unlikely to be seen in Europe during the northern winter.
Features like crests, long tail feathers, wattles on the face, long feather plumes, etc.
A few examples of these are shown below.
The process of identifying a bird therefore, requires first identifying the family to which the bird belongs, then identifying the species by looking at the colour, markings, behaviour, features, etc.
The families and their species are shown in a great variety of Bird Guide-books that can be found in all countries, many of which contain details of all species found in the country.
Visit your local book-shop or contact your local bird society or club, and begin to watch birds, and identify them to family level, then try to pinpoint the exact species.
Wing bars, grey crown, nape and throat. Bluish bill. Chaffinch
Orange bill, buff-coloured flanks, pale orange legs, gular stripe (side of the throat), greyish-brown wings, pale stripe above the eye. KUrrichane Thrush.
Red legs, black-and-white head pattern, reddish-brown upper parts with black markings, black breast with white on the sides. Ruddy Turnstone.