Do you wish you knew how to draw them? I never really thought about birds too much. I was the little kid who dug up stuff out of the ground, liked to get muddy, and loved bugs. As I have gotten older I have discovered my passion is expanding to birds. I am enjoying drawing them.

Do you need to have a degree in ornithology to draw birds? Geez, I hope not!

Here is a colored pencil sketch I did of a Spectacled Owl at the Toucan Rescue Ranch in Costa Rica. The owl was recovering at the ranch and allowed me to spend the afternoon drawing him!

I have 2 degrees in art but they focused on textile design, hand-weaving, spinning and natural dyeing. I have no formal training in drawing birds but through my travels, more and more birds seem to be popping up in my paintings. Understanding and breaking down basic bird anatomy greatly enhances drawing them whether you are working from photographs, taxidermy specimens, captive birds or observing birds in the wild. Here are some things I discovered along the way that can help you to start drawing birds.

  • Head & Body Shape- Often the head and body are a simple variation of the sphere and/or oval shape. By drawing these simple shapes first you can get an idea of the overall shape before you go to detail. Check out the proportion size of the head to the length of the neck to the size of the body. Notice the placement of the beak to where the eye placement is on the head.
  • Beak Shape– Is the beak short, long, curved, pointed, flat or hooked?  Each shape will determine if the bird eats seeds, insects, fruit, nectar, meat, carrion, or fish.
  • Feet Shape– Bird feet are specialized and help define the habitat where it resides. Special adaptation of the feet allow species to perch, grab, swim, climb and even walk on water! Most birds have 4 digits which are similar to human toes. The arrangement of the digits often helps to classify what type of environment they live in.
  • Feathers-There are 2 common types of feathers. Contour feathers are most common and are are found all over the body including the tail and wings. Down feathers are typically found underneath contour feathers and are not visible. The quill is where the feather attaches to the body. Look at the placement of the wings. Can you identify the primary, secondary and covert feathers? Look for the positioning and length of the tail feathers.
  • Identify the Bird– Identify the common as well as the Latin names of the birds you encounter. Record any behavior you notice while drawing. Make color swatches in the colored pencil or watercolor.

Where can you practice drawing birds?

  • Live Birds in Captivity- Zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers offer a great opportunity to see birds from around the world alive. They are mostly in cages with limited area for flight. This makes easier to draw than in the wild.
  • Live Birds Outside- Anywhere there is a body of water you will see birds. A backyard bird feeder is also a perfect place. Find a spot where you can sit quietly and observe how they take to flight, land and interact with one another adds important information to your knowledge of birds.
  • Photographs- The plus side of using photos is the bird does not move. The negative side is that photos can distort perspective, rendering body parts out of focus or hidden by foliage. I highly recommend you work with your own photographs. You need to experience the moment and remember it is unethical to copy a photograph taken by someone else without permission! ( we will discuss more about working form photos later on!)
  • TaxidermySpecimens- Bird displays be found in natural history museums, local wildlife centers, and universities. Mounted specimens are prepared with a core manufactured skeleton which the skin is mounted on top of. The positions can be very life-like. Museums may have displays in a di-a-ramas which can be drawn from different angles. Small details can be seen on mounts that are not seen from drawing in the field or photographs.

I know a perfect place for you to get some serious hands on bird drawing time! Where….. Costa Rica!!!

It is one of the top birding locations in the world. Join me as we journey into the heart of the rainforest where you will have the intimate experience of observing, photographing and drawing birds in captivity and in the wild. Imagine drawing a Rainbow Keeled Toucan while it is having its breakfast of fresh papaya!

If you are looking for more information about tips and techniques for drawing birds check out my book: The Art of Botanical & Bird Illustration.