Field Drawings: Birds

Somewhere along the line, someone lied to you. I mean, it’s probably happened more than once, but at some point, most people get told the lie “you can’t draw.”


You might want to grab a pen and some paper. A pen, not a pencil. You don’t need an eraser. I promise. Trust me.

We’re going to go through some field drawings. Once you know what you’re doing, they go fast. You won’t have time to erase. Field drawings are quick. Seriously, just grab a cheap, ballpoint pen. The sort that you always have in your desk and never remember buying. I’ll wait. It’s fine… … ... Perfect.

Can you draw a straight-ish line? What about a vaguely circular shape? How about a squiggle? Do you know what a triangle looks like?

From left to right: a vertical line, a roughly circular shape, a rough S-shaped squiggle, an equilateral triangle

That’s close enough and good enough to get on with.

Here’s a question. What shape is a bird?

There’s a smallish circle for the head, an oval-ish shape for the body. Sometimes a triangle shaped tailed, triangle or rectangular shaped wings (forgot to ask if you could draw a rectangle. Don’t worry. I’ve got confidence in you). Triangle or similar for the beak. Lines for the legs.

A very rough sketch of an unidentifiable bird species

Boom. A bird. If we’re using GISS (General Impression of Shape and Size), you would say “yup, looks like a bird.” Most birds have that same basic shape though.

See look, here’s a robin.

Rough sketch of American Robin. Notes from upper left going clockwise: Dark gray, gray, gray, brown/orange/red

I don’t make a habit of carrying colored pencils or the like on me, so I just kinda added in some areas with notes on the color. Again, field drawings go quickly. You sometimes only get a momentary glance at the bird and if you flip open your book immediately, you might mis-remember a key marking as you flip through the pages. If you sketch it first, what you remember won't be open for as much reinterpretation when comparing to a field guide.

Cardinals are very similar to robins in body shape. Just make a note that it’s generally red with an orange beak, and has a crest. I added in more notes about general size, where it was, and what it was doing, as these can be helpful when having to ID something.

Rough sketch of cardinal. Notes from upper left, going clockwise: Fancy crest, red all over, slightly larger than Am. Robin, In park hopping along branches, Occasionally chasing other birds, Orange/Large

And then there’s LBBs (little brown birds, little brown bastards, take your pick really). This infographic, created by Richard Eddens of BirdFace, gives some great examples of the heads of different types of sparrows. Admittedly, Sparrows can be tricky, but knowing what to look for will give you an edge in the field. Sparrows aren’t the only LBBs, but they all tend to follow similar patterns. If you're fond of this type of ID chart, Eddens has several more on his Facebook Page.

Simplified drawings of the head patterns of several sparrow species. Credit to Richard Edden.

Alright, let’s try something a little more complicated. Ducks and other waterfowl are shaped a bit differently. You can often see them in the water, or standing around. Here, try a mallard. We’re still sticking to the same basic shapes though. Circles, weird triangles, more squiggles because there’s water.

Rough sketch of male mallard duck. Notes from upper left going clockingwise: Yellow bill, dark green head, white, brown/gray, white, water line, cream.gray, brown

Sometimes you have other birds hanging out in the water with the ducks, like a cormorant. Note the difference in how low in the water the cormorant is. Weird, right? That’s because different kinds of waterfowl have different kinds of adaptations. Some are dabblers, like the mallard and black ducks. Some are divers.

Rough sketch of double crested cormorant. Field notes starting from upper left going clockwise: Gray, all black, bobbing in water after diving to catch fish, water line, orange

Ok, ok, here’s a really fun one. Great blue herons share their shape with a lot of birds, like the glossy ibis, cattle egret, or tricolor heron. They’ve got long necks, long bills, and long legs. It’s just making some of your lines and sqiggles a bit differently. Don’t worry. Not too crazy. Try your hand at the great blue heron and the glossy ibis.

Rough sketches of Great Blue Heron (left) and Glossy Ibis (right). Heron notes, starting upper left and going clockwise: Ninja turtle headband in black, shades of blue-gray, chilling in some water, long feathers along bottom of neck. Glossy Ibis notes, starting from upper left going clockwise: long, curved, gray bill, iridescent deep red, iridescent black/green, hanging out in reeds near bank.

Of course, we’d be completely remiss if we didn’t include birds of prey. Owls, hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey have very similar characteristics, and their body orientation differs from the other birds that we’ve drawn today, as they sit more upright when perched.

Rough sketch of Eastern Screech Owl (left) and Red tailed hawk (Right).

Sometimes though, you see them in flight. This is where things can get a bit more difficult and where GISS really comes in handy. You want to get an idea if the wings were boxy or triangular. Did they look sharp and crisp? Or did they seem to have fingers sticking out, or obvious feathers along the back end of the wing? What shape is the tail? Can you see colors and markings on them? You might not, especially if it is very sunny. That’s ok. You can sometimes still tell what a bird is just from the outline. Here are some quick sketches of a few. Just remember, the peregrine falcon and the turkey vulture are not to scale to each other. Anyway, try your hand at them too.

Rough sketches of Peregrine Falcon (right) and Turkey Vulture (left) silhouettes. Notes around Peregrine Falcon from upper left clockwise: Lighter head, sharp wings, long tail. Notes from Turkey Vulture from top, clockwise: Wings form "W", Super wobbly, ~6 together circling, dark, lighter, finger-like

Seriously though, you don’t have to be a great artist to make fantastic field drawings. The entire point of the field drawing is to give you or someone else enough information to be able to identify what you saw. As you do these, your mind will start to pick out the important details faster and more accurately. So get out there and test drive your new skills. Maybe try it on your lunch break from work. It is certainly a good excuse to get away from the desk and into the sun.

If you’ve got any questions, or want to show off your sketches, send them our way!

#birds #birding #fielddrawings #art #sketch #urban #urbanwildlife #biology #science #scienceeducation #conservation #nature

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