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ABC’s of Bird Identification – Shape

Common Eider in flight

A bird’s shape or silhouette is often a very good clue to its identity. In fact, expert birders can identify many species by only their silhouette. And with just a little experience, so can you.

To help you begin to learn to identify birds by shape, we have developed the Shape Master.

One of the skills you will develop initially is to be able to place different birds in a specific family. Most people will be able to identify the general shape of a duck; with experience you will be able to quickly do the same with woodpeckers, flycatchers, raptors, shorebirds and other family groups. Look for these elements:

Posture is an important element in identifying birds by their silhouette. Some birds have an upright posture (most flycatchers), while others tend to have a ‘flatter’ posture (thrushes).

Bill size and shape can help determine the general family of the bird, such as ducks or finches. Does the bird have a small, thin bill (like a warbler), a straight, pointed bill (like a woodpecker), or a heavy, strong bill (like a cardinal or sparrow)?

Legs and feet
The legs and feet of a bird often reflect its favored habitat. Flat and webbed feet for swimming, as in ducks; long and thin legs for wading, as in herons and egrets; or adapted for climbing up the side of a tree trunk, like a woodpecker  (which has two toes facing forward and two facing back on each foot).


Using the Shape Master

Shape Master died when Flash wasn’t supported anymore. Sorry!

There are 19 bird species in the Shape Master. There are three images for each species. Use the inside arrows to move from one image to the next.

The first image for each species is its silhouette.

The second image is a gray-scale version of the image. You may be surprised by how much information is in a black-and-white image. Most species can be identified by a black and white image, often very easily.

The third image is full color and has the name of the bird. As you move back and forth between the three images, you’ll begin to recognize the basic patterns of light and dark for the particular species, and ultimately its silhouette.

We will be adding new Shape Masters on a regular basis, so check back often.


Other Identification Types:

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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