The Recognition vs. Identification Gap

by Ann Nightingale and Dave Irons

Did you remember to include the blackish streaks on the white undertail coverts?” I concluded a recent BirdFellow journal article (“Lost Art? Revisited: Alternatives to Taking Notes”) with this question. In response, one of my long-time birding companions later queried, “so, what’s the deal with the streaking on the undertail of robins?” His question made my point. He had no idea that robins show dark charcoal to blackish streaking on their undertail coverts. Once things become familiar to us, we no longer look at them critically.


Though the dark charcoal-colored undertail streaking can be seen from this angle, generally one is looking somewhat downward at an American Robin feeding on the ground and the undertail markings cannot be seen. Thankfully, it is not necessary to verify this field mark, which many birders are completely unaware of, in order to recognize this species.

This same person regularly leads field trips for beginning birders. Like all veteran leaders, he is often asked how he so quickly identifies (actually recognizes) common species at a distance. His canned response, “the first 10,000 were a little tougher” may come off as a bit obnoxious to a new birder, but with a little explanation it makes sense. After we’ve seen a common bird species a few dozen times, we no longer go through the process of identifying it. We recognize it. For those who are parents, think about how easy it is to pick out your own children on a crowded playground.  

If you look up recognize in a dictionary, it will generally be defined along these lines, To know to be something that has been perceived before or, to identify as something or someone previously seen, known, etc. Conversely, identify is variously defined as, establish the identity of someone or something and, to ascertain the origin, nature, or definitive characteristics of and finally as it relates to classifying birds, to determine the taxonomic classification of (a plant or animal).

When one first starts birding or birdwatching, nearly every bird they encounter must be identified. Aside from iconic species like the American Robin or an adult Bald Eagle, few if any are “known” on a level that makes them recognizable.

Let’s translate this process in the context of human interactions. Imagine that you’ve been dating a person for several months and one day the two of you decide to meet at your favorite restaurant rather than commencing the date with one party picking up the other at home or work. Upon reaching the restaurant, you begin scanning the room. The moment you lay eyes on your partner, they are recognized immediately. Did you have to check hair or eye color? Did you consider height or weight? Did you have to look at your partner’s feet to make sure they were the right size or if the shoes that they were wearing were the right color? No, of course not! How then did you determine that it was your partner? Easy, you already had a search image.

A search image might best be described as the sum of the parts. It’s not based on a particular characteristic or specific combination characteristics. Instead, it has been formed and shaped by the many hours you’ve spent in that person’s company. You know how they stand, how they walk, how their hair frames their face and their general shape. And yet, if asked, you would be hard-pressed to offer a description that someone unfamiliar with that person might use to pick him or her out of a crowd.

Now, let’s consider the same scenario, only this time it is a blind date. In anticipation of the date, you may have talked to the opposite party realizing that you would have to find one another at a pre-arranged meeting spot. In addition to determining where and when you are going to meet, you will likely exchange descriptions of your appearance -- a set of field marks so to speak.

I’m about 5’10, slightly built, with thick curly black hair, I have tightly trimmed goatee and moustache. I’ll be wearing khaki slacks, a navy blue polo shirt, and dark blue suede Birkenstocks and I’ll wait at the bar if I get there first.

Like me, you arrive at the restaurant a few minutes late, so you head for the bar and start looking for someone who matches the description above (like an illustration in a field guide). Even after spotting a person who seems to fit the bill, you’re still not sure. So, you will probably walk up, introduce yourself, and then ask if they are the person who is supposed to be meeting you for a blind date. Before commencing your date, you’ll want to make a positive identification.

Unfortunately, birds don’t speak our language, so we can’t ask them what species they are. Additionally, there are often other species that are very similar in overall appearance.  Turning back to blind date vignette, imagine if you were to arrive at the restaurant and find two men sitting at the bar who matched the general description given to you earlier in the day. When we experience a species for the first time, we may need to check and double check the field marks before arriving at a positive identification. We may reference multiple field guides, comparing their illustrations with the markings that we’ve seen on the bird.

Some species are very distinctive and there are no other species with which they might be confused. A good example of such species is an American White Pelican. Even the most novice birder will almost immediately recognize a bird as a pelican the first time they see one. If you are birding on the North American continent and you see a pelican that is mostly white – mystery solved. American White Pelican is the only one white pelican that occurs here. Conversely, birds like Savannah Sparrow are far more complicated. To start with, there are numerous other species of sparrows and finches that a novice birder might find to be superficially similar to a Savannah Sparrow. Further complicating matters is the geographic variation shown by Savannah Sparrows. Even after becoming familiar with your local population of Savannah Sparrow, you are likely to be a bit confounded if you travel across the country and see Savannah Sparrows that look dramatically different. It may take several years and lots of experience before you become fully comfortable recognizing this species in all of its plumage expressions.


There are some groups of birds, like Empidonax flycatchers, which will provide identification challenges for even the most experienced birders. For such groups, it may be unrealistic to expect to reach a point where one is able to recognize every individual bird to species. This hatch-year Willow Flycatcher, photographed at Malheur N.W.R. on 29 Aug 2009, might easily be mistaken for one of the other Empids. Only after careful consideration and examination of several aspects of the bird is it safe to make a positive ID.

We raise this discussion because we believe that there is significant communication gap between those birders who recognize most birds they see and those who are still working out the identifications of the species that they encounter. This gap leads to a real conundrum for experienced birders. When a rare bird is recognized rather than identified, their written description may not meet the requirements of a records committee or other review body. Yet, if the observer tries to write a more detailed description, it would likely draw on features he “knows” rather than features that were specifically seen. Though the recognition was likely correct, writing up a convincing report may prove to be more of a challenge than it would be for a new birder, whose lack of experience would cause them to pay closer attention to specific details about the bird’s plumage and other features.

You can often tell the recognizers from the identifiers by the presence or absence of their field guides. When birding on their home turf, experienced birders rarely consult their field guides or even take them along on birding trips, while novices, seeking to confirm each identification, invariably carry theirs into the field. While recognition is immediate, or at least done while observing the bird, it is possible to identify a bird long after you have seen it—if you have made good field notes. With your identification details in hand, you can check field guides or the Internet to determine what you have seen.

If you ask an expert birder what it was they saw on a bird that allowed them to identify/recognize it, there may be a pregnant pause before they can offer a meaningful answer. Their description is likely to include mention of a flight style, a posture, a size, or a shape, but will probably be short on details when it comes to the bird’s plumage. Their recognitions are based on refined search images that result from years of comparative experiences. If you take the search image out of the context of the observational experiences that shaped it, you’ll find that it becomes almost impossible to describe. If you ask a less-experienced birder how they identified the same bird, they are likely to offer a stream of “field marks” that they think support their identification. It had long black wings, a yellow head, a long pointed orange bill, a short tail, and it was white with brown streaks underneath. They have yet to form a search image.

An uncomfortable situation that sometimes arises is when a less experienced birder asks for identification details from a more experienced birder. Far too often, the experienced birder is offended and perceives the question as doubt of the bird’s ID.  If we can remember that we may be speaking two different languages—recognition vs. identification—the unintended slight can be seen for what it really is—the details that the less experienced birder needs to be able to build a personal search image.

Years of experience don’t make one immune to committing the occasional blunder. It’s not only possible to misidentify a bird; you can mis-recognize a bird, too. This story comes from the early birding days of a friend, who counted 35 Lesser Scaup on a farm reservoir. When prompted by his birding mentor to count again, he did, and once again came up with thirty-five. The more experienced birder finally pointed out that there were only 34 Lesser Scaup on the pond…and one Tufted Duck. There are hazards that will trip you up on the path from identification to recognition, especially if a rarity is quite similar to a familiar species. As birders become proficient at recognizing birds, they may be less likely to scrutinize individuals in a flock. They may also come down with a case of “rarity fever” -- a willingness to believe that individuals that look or act a little different must be something different. 

Despite having a conspicuous tuft and a solid black back that make this adult male Tufted Duck, a slam-dunk ID when seen by itself, it might go unnoticed if it were tucked away in a large raft of scaup. This bird, photographed along the Columbia R. at Portland, Oregon on 11 April 2010, indeed spent much of its time mixing with thousands of Greater and Lesser Scaup, making it difficult to relocate at times.

If you approach birding as a solo endeavor, the difference between recognition vs. identification may be moot. If you’ve figured out what the bird is, it doesn’t really matter how you did it. But birding is often a social or community event, in real life or virtually through social networking on sites like Facebook and BirdFellow. It’s worth keeping your identification skills sharp even as you move towards the realm of recognition so that you can better share your discoveries with less-experienced birders and bird records committees alike. Everyone benefits, and you might even find that Tufted Duck in the flock of scaup!

Editor's Note: The authors had been tossing this article back and forth and fleshing it out since first discussing this topic while birding together in February 2011. After finally putting the finishing touches on it recently, we discovered a somewhat similar piece that Blake Mathys' published on the ABA Blog in April 2011. Remarkably, the two articles dissect this topic in a very similar manner, albeit with slightly different spins. Since there is not complete overlap between the ABA Blog and BirdFellow Journal audiences, we ultimately felt that there was no harm in the coexistence of two somewhat similar articles. We would encourage our readers to check out Blake Mathys piece, as it is well-written, well-conceived, and sheds additional light on how birders of different experience levels use distinctly different approaches as they attempt to sort out the birds they are seeing and hearing.

All photos taken by Dave Irons


I’m surprised there were not more comments on this post.

Shape, behavior, habitat, flight style, status and distribution (=expectation), voice or other sounds, all go into recognition. They are no less valid than “field marks.” However, field guides, by their very nature are designed with minimal text and concentrate primarily on plumage.

As a result, most birders—even very experienced ones—lack the vocabulary and perhaps the sensory self-awareness to describe to others what exactly they notice that leads to recognition. Our brains are so good at pattern-matching that we often don’t know consciously exactly why we recognize what we do.

These things can be learned and taught, but it takes effort, and will never appear in a field guide.


In response to Greg Gillson: I’m not so sure that is a lack of vocabulary as much as it is that the vocabulary we do have applies specifically to our set of collective experiences and therefore has little meaning to those who have not shared in those experiences.

My ability to quickly recognize juvenile Western, Least, and Semipalmated Sandpipers on a mudflat in an Oregon estuary comes from the unique set of experiences that I’ve had in the company of these species. The comparative analyses that have occurred in my brain over many years and many experiences looking at these species is truly unique to me. Even if another birder had been standing side-by-side with me during each and every one of those experiences, my language for describing the differences in these species would still be different than theirs.

Both of us might readily recognize the juveniles of all three species, but the mental search images we apply to the process would not be identical. What each of us sees and perceives is not identical. In my case, perhaps shape and posture would be a stronger determining factor, while their search image might be more strongly based in color and pattern.

The process of bird “identification” is based on a somewhat objective set of criteria (field marks) that have been agreed upon by many as defining the bird in question. On the other hand, bird “recognition” is based on a somewhat subjective set of criteria that only have meaning in the context of the collective observational experiences of a particular observer, who then uses a search image distilled from those experiences to recognize the bird in question.

Like Greg, I would love to see more discussion of this fascinating topic.


Thanks for the excellent post. Definitely relevant reading for all novice and experienced wildlife observers.


This has got to be the best article I have ever read on this topic in my 40+ years of birding. It says so well what I have been trying to say for years, but have not been able to put down on paper, or even past my tongue. Somehow this needs to be put into the preface of every bird book produced from here on in!.


I did not see this article when it came out over 2 years ago. It is well thought out.
From my experience as one who struggles with shorebirds, let me say that a) not everyone puts in the time studying detail, detail, detail the way you have — it is not their INTENTION to approach birds/birding that way, and b) when the novice asks the experienced birder with the huge array of past experience (both in the field and studying sources) “why is that a __________ (particular species)?” the answer often comes back at a level of vocabulary that is two or three steps down the road from identification to recognition. Rectricies. Alternate. Secondary coverts. The experienced speaker needs to go back to step one if he/she wants to bring the novice along on the path to recognition.

Realize, too, that not everyone WANTS to get to the level where he/she can instantly recognize every bird he/she sees. Not everyone wants to continnually improve, to strive to “become a better birder” as is so often repeated in discussions like this. Sine folks simply enjoy birds without knowing all the detail.

I met a good number of people on Morning Birdsong Walks who came every time, but did not advance much in learning bird songs. They just appreciated being led, shown birds, and taking a walk in the woods on a nice spring morning.

We all come to this hobby from different angles, with different levels of time, interest, energy, and ability. We arrive at different levels of skill in recognizing birds. It’s all good.



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