Some may find it strange that such high ranking is assigned to this second step in this recommended approach to the identification of unknown birds. (Missed Step 1? Read it here.)

Step two: The shape and colour of the bill.

Do you share this view? Well, then I think you should go through your bird guide again! This time round, however, take proper note of the fact that the birds are classified in groups sharing common features. You will find that, usually, in most respects, the bills of the birds in a group are similar in shape. [Notable exceptions where bill shape does vary markedly amongst species in a group include curlews (wulpe), godwits (griete) and sandpipers (strandlopers); ravens and crows (kraaie); avocets (elsies); and larks (lewerikke).] An experienced birder familiar with the characteristic bill shape of the various groups should be able to determine to which group a bird belongs by looking at the shape of the bill only. Obviously, this skill simplifies the process of determining the group and eventually the species of an unknown bird.

Sparrows [Southern Grey-headed Sparrow ♂ (Gryskopmossie)]

Photo by Louis Jordaan

Buntings [Lark-like Bunting (Vaalstreepkoppie)]

Weavers [Southern Masked Weaver ♀ (Swartkeelgeelvink)]

Another feature of a bill that needs to be specifically noted is the colour:

  • Is the bill one colour only, or multicoloured?
  • What is (are) the exact colour(s)?

The next three photographs of our three species of mousebirds (muisvoëls) illustrate how, apart from other features of the birds, noting the colour(s) of the bill can make identification of the species in a group much easier.

Speckled Mousebird (Gevlekte Muisvoël)

White-backed Mousebird (Witkruismuisvoël)

Red-faced Mousebird (Rooiwangmuisvoël)

Keep in mind, however, that the colour variation of the bill between species in a group often is less obvious as with mousebirds. For instance, a careful study of the photos or/and sketches and species accounts of the various species of pipits (koesters) will, on the one hand, demonstrate how subtle distinctions can be.  And, on the other hand, how crucial this aspect can be in determining the species. The slight colour difference between the lower mandible of the Plain-backed Pipit (Donkerkoester) and Buffy Pipit (Vaalkoester) is a case in point.

See you soon with Step 3, focusing on the length, colour and other features of the legs.