The remnants of Hurricane Ida held back bird migration for two days in Pittsburgh but the logjam has broken. Today and tomorrow hold the promise of many migrating birds in southwestern Pennsylvania including mixed flocks of confusing fall warblers. Here’s a tip on how to identify them. This even works hours later at home with your reference guides.
In the field with a hard-to-identify bird, write down every feature you see as if you were going to draw the bird. Don’t forget habitat and behavior.
Details, details, details! The more details the better. If you get only a fleeting glimpse describe whatever jumps out at you.
The details will be useful when you get home and look at field guides.
Let’s try it on this bird.
At first glance (squint your eyes to see less):
perched in a tree
smaller than a sparrow; warbler size
charcoal gray back
white wing bars
(Under the Tail is important too but we can’t see it here.)
Birds don’t have this problem. If the loss is in their inner ear, their bodies repair the damage. Learn more in this vintage article: Birds Can Recover Lost Hearing.
Perhaps birds can recover their hearing because their lives depend on it. Gene Henderson reminded me of a high-pitched danger call that American robins make. At 7200 to 8400 Hertz it’s now outside my hearing range. Can you hear the four calls in the recording below at 2,5,8 and 11 seconds? They look like checkmarks on the sonogram.
In late summer in eastern North America a different looking ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) shows up. If you don’t look closely you may misidentify it.
It doesn’t look exactly like an adult, pictured below, but it resembles the female.
So is it female? No!
See the red dots on the throat? It’s a young male, born this spring, who is already developing his red gorget.
Before he has red dots you can still identify him by the stippling (dotted lines) on his throat. This young male, below, has stippling without red dots.
Unfortunately the bird pictured at top was misidentified as female on Wikimedia Commons. I corrected the description but cannot change the filename that contains the word “female” so he will still confuse people.
Proving that you should not believe everything you see on the Internet.
Summer is a challenging time to identify birds when fledglings look quite different from adults. Here are seven species whose babies can honestly say, “I don’t look like my parents.”
American robin adults (left) have plain rust-colored breasts. Juveniles (right) have spotted breasts.
The differences between juvenile and adult downy woodpeckers are subtle. Juveniles (left) have a faint red patch on top of the head while adult males (right) have a vibrant splash of red on the back of the head. (Don’t be fooled by the red flower behind the male in this photo.)
Red-bellied woodpecker juveniles (middle photo) are very plain with no red on their heads. Adult males (left) are red from bill to nape while adult females (right) have red napes, pale foreheads, and a spot of red at the bill.
In breeding plumage adult European starlings (left) are iridescent glossy black while fledglings are dull brown (right). Check out the shape of the fledgling’s beak and how he opens it. He has that in common with his parents.
Juvenile northern cardinals (dark bird on branch) resemble their mothers but the juveniles have dark beaks. Their mothers (at right) have orange beaks.
Juvenile brown-headed cowbirds never look like their foster parents. These dull brown, chunky birds have short, fat necks and “fat” beaks. The beak is the clue.
And finally, young chipping sparrows look so different from their parents that you’d think they’re another species. The juveniles are stripey brown (photo at top) while their parents have plain pale breasts and rusty caps. The best way to identify a fledgling chipping sparrow is to watch who it begs from.
In the middle of summer the male ducks disappear — or so it seems. The males are still present but they look like females because they’ve molted into eclipse plumage.
Let’s take a look at mallards to see how this works.
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) replace all their feathers once a year but males and females do it at different times. Females molt while nesting (February–May); males molt after the breeding season (June–August).
The molt begins with a complete loss of remiges (wing flight feathers) that takes only a few days, rendering the bird flightless for 3-4 weeks. Fortunately males simultaneously replace their brightly colored body feathers with dull ones so they can hide in dense marshes. Eclipse plumage keeps them out of danger.
Here’s the transformation.
Notice that the male’s head becomes mottled green (below) and then dull brown (photo at top).
Once the males have made this transition it’s a challenge to tell them apart from females but here’s a clue. Look at their bills. In the summer males have yellow or greenish-yellow bills while females have dull orange-ish bills.
Eventually the male starts to molt back to his typical plumage. Partway there he looks like this.
And by November he’s back to his normal flashy self in time to court his springtime mate.
This summer when you see a mallard, look at the bill. Maybe he’s a male in eclipse.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)
If you see an odd and ugly bird like this northern cardinal don’t worry that he’s ill. He isn’t sick. He’s just temporarily bald.
Many birds molt in the summer when they’ve finished breeding and food is plentiful. Warm weather is the perfect time to lose worn out feathers, a few at a time, and grow in new ones. Some northern cardinals and blue jays however lose all their head feathers simultaneously and become bald for about a week. This happens so often among blue jays in North Carolina that it’s considered normal there.
Birds also go temporarily bald during the molt if they have feather mites on their heads. Lose all the head feathers and lose the mites, too.
Bald birds are ugly, though. Their ears are just holes near their eyes, their heads look small, and their skin doesn’t match the missing feathers. Nonetheless, it’s temporary.
So don’t worry if you see a bird like this one in the video. He’s not sick. He’s just bald.
(photo of bald northern cardinal photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
Every once in a while we find a very unusual bird that defies identification.
This one was filmed by pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) at the Delta in Vancouver, BC, Canada on Thursday 6 May 2021. Its chest and belly look like an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) but its shape, beak, voice and behavior are like a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). The final clue is that he hangs out in marshes with red-winged blackbirds.
As you watch him move and hear him sing you know who he is.
There’s a black bird with red wings in South Africa that resembles North America’s red-winged blackbird except for his outrageously long tail.
The long-tailed widowbird (Euplectes progne) is not related to red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The widowbird is a weaver (Ploceidae), red-wings are New World blackbirds (Icteridae), yet male and female widowbirds have very similar coloring to male and female red-wings. The similarity ends when you see his tail.
His tail is an important part of his courtship flight display.
If you saw lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) in the fields this winter you know how hard they are to notice, even when abundant. Unlike horned larks that are visible when they walk, longspurs barely move while foraging for seeds in low brown vegetation. They match the ground.
To achieve this camouflage, they molt in July and August while on their breeding grounds, then head south to spend the winter in fields across the northern U.S. and as far south as Texas.
During the winter, their feathers get older but instead of looking tattered they show more color. Here’s one in mid-January.
By the time they reach their arctic breeding grounds in late May the males are especially gorgeous.
They don’t molt to become this beautiful. Instead the tips of lapland longspurs’ feathers wear off to reveal gorgeous colors just below.
It would be nice if we humans got prettier as we wore out. Instead we just look ragged.