Bird Identification: The Six ‘S’ Rule

Least Flycatcher by Anne Elliott

Let me tell you about the Six “S” rule.

Once other folks know that you have some knowledge of birds, they will call upon you to tell them the name of a species that they recently observed. They’ll often start out by saying something like, “Last week, while visiting my cousin Philip at Lethbridge, I saw a black and white bird with yellow on it. What was it?”

Well, unless they can give you more information, you can only guess as to its possible identity. If you know them well, you might reply something to the effect, “When I drink too much I see those birds too”.

To readily identify any mystery bird, you need more detail — information encompassed in six wonderful words that begin with the letter “S”.

If you (or they) pay attention to them, it will enable you to quickly identify the quarry of their query. Those six “S” words are:

S for Size How large is it? Is it Sparrow-sized, Robin-sized, Crow-sized, Goose-sized?

S for Shape, silhouette or structure Is it a chunky bird like a European Starling or a partridge … or long and slim like a magpie?

S for Sound What vocalization did it make? It helps to write it out in phonetics, complete with accents, as you soon forget what you heard.

S for Season What time of the year was it seen? Locally, you don’t expect to see a hummingbird in January — or a Snowy Owl in July.

S for Site [S I T E] What habitat was it in? Ducks usually swim; hummingbirds visit flowers, not vice versa.

–And finally

S for Sight [S I G H T] What markings or behaviour did you note? Eye-rings, wingbars, spotted breasts. Was it alone or in a flock? If flying in a flock, was it in tight or loose formation, etc.?

Initially, you may be overwhelmed by the great number of species of birds. However, by starting now, at this time of the year, when there are relatively few species present, you will get to know their names and identification features. Having learned them, when you see a new species, you can quickly eliminate those you already know. Identification is largely a process of elimination.

Gus Yaki

2 thoughts on “Bird Identification: The Six ‘S’ Rule

  1. Greetings. I recently moved to Calgary and have taken up birding as a hobby. I purchased a canon powershot digital camera and come out with some pretty decent pictures. I would like to have some birding buddies and as well have a couple birds I need help identifying. Thanks,

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