RSPB England’s Becca Smith shares a few top tips for distinguishing some common garden birds, ahead of the Big Garden Birdwatch running from the 25th-27th January.

With many a bird identification question coming to us here at the RSPB on a daily basis, our busiest time of year is unsurprisingly during the Big Garden Birdwatch; a weekend when half a million of the nation’s eyes are turned to their gardens and green spaces. We’ve all been there – you spot a bird in a nearby tree or bush and you want to record it on your chart but you’re unsure what it is. Cue the frantic searching of our ID guide, books or the internet and just like that it’s flown away or retreated further into the foliage.

Female siskin and male greenfinch (photo credit - Chris Gomersall)

Racing stripes – siskins and greenfinches

Siskins and greenfinches are commonly confused due to their similar yellow plumage, however it is the distinguished stripes or streaked appearances of this colour on siskins which sets them apart from other finches. With sharper forked tails and black crowns, the males also have further distinctive features, and so it is often female siskins that get mistaken for greenfinches.

Big headed – willow tits and marsh tits

Two birds than can leave many in a muddle are marsh and willow tits. With very similar markings and colourations, there are a few subtle differences such as the shape of the black crown which both birds wear as part of their plumage. Marsh tits, as a broader and larger headed bird, have a thicker black marking which spans from their head down to the mantle, while willow tits have a smaller crown, whiter cheeks and usually a pale wing patch.

Redwing (photo credit - Ben Andrew)

High brow – redwings and fieldfares

It’s small but individual markings that set Redwings and fieldfares apart, such as the fieldfares’ grey head and lower back plus rich ochre chest band. Redwings, other than their apparent rusty red underwing and flank, also have a bold white supercilium - a plumage stripe which runs from the base of the bird's beak above its eye and finishes somewhere towards the rear of the bird's head - much like an eyebrow.

Crowning glory – house sparrows and tree sparrows

Thankfully for birdwatchers, house and tree sparrows, while appearing very similar at first glance, can be told apart by the colour of their crowns. With tree sparrows sporting a solid chestnut brown head and nape, which contrasts with their pale cheeks, male house sparrows have a light grey crown and cheeks.

Black headed gull (photo credit - Ben Hall)

Back to black – black headed gulls and common gulls

A common misconception amongst the gull family is that black headed gulls keep their dark pigment all year round. This in fact is not true, and they only retain small streaks of black across their heads during winter, meaning they can be confused with common gulls more easily.  Black headed gulls however are smaller than their counterparts, with more red pigmentation to their legs and beaks as opposed to the yellow colouring to that of the common gulls.

Brambling (photo credit - Ben Andrew)

Orange is the new…. – brambling and chaffinches

Brambling and chaffinches can be easily confused, especially during winter when their colours are dullest.  One colour that remains prominent all year round exclusively for bramblings is the orange tinge to their upper chest and shoulders which contrasts with their white rump and belly.

Odd one out – wood pigeons, collared doves, and feral pigeons

Pigeons are a regular visitor to our gardens and public spaces, however not all belong to the same species. Collared doves, a relation of pigeons, while a similar grey brown colour to their counterparts, tend to have a pink hue to their plumage and distinctive black neck collar as opposed to the metallic neck colouring of pigeons.  And if you spot an unusually coloured pigeon? Chances are you’ve stumbled across a coloured variation of a feral pigeon, as a range of colours and markings, including brown, albino and all black, have been noticed amongst flocks.


A pair of rooks and a singular crow (photo credit - Ben Andrew)

Three’s a crowd – rooks and crows

It's quite difficult to tell rooks and crows apart, but often it’s the number in which they visit that gives it away. Rooks are more sociable animals, living in large groups, while crows are often seen on their own or in pairs. Rooks are also a little bigger than crows, who are completely black in comparison to the lighter facial feathers and paler beak of the rook.

Know your suits – song thrushes and mistle thrushes

Much like a pack of cards, song thrushes and mistle thrushes can be differentiated by the shape of the marks on their chest. Mistle thrushes, bigger and more upright in their stance than their counterparts, also have dart or arrow shaped marks on their pale bellies, while song thrushes have more heart shaped blotches.

If there’s any other birds you encounter during your Big Garden Birdwatch that you’re unsure about, be sure to check out our handy bird identifier.