Bird identification can get a little tricky this time of year as fledglings begin leaving the nest and start showing up at backyard feeders. In many species, juveniles lack the plumage and markings that make adult birds fairly easy to identify. In many species, juveniles do not obtain their adult plumage until the following spring, prior to breeding season.
The lack of distinctive markings in juvenile plumage poses a challenge to casual backyard birders, and this time of year, we field a lot of questions here at the bird store regarding bird identification. Here are some pointers on figuring out who those little brown birds are in your yard.
Plumage: Adult female plumage in most bird species tends to be muted and rather plain, lacking striking colors and patterns. Generally speaking, most juveniles, whether they are male or female, look similar to adult females of their species. For example, a juvenile male lesser goldfinch looks a lot like an adult female lesser goldfinch.
Association: Sometimes your ability to identify juveniles will be aided by observing with whom they are “hanging” out. Over the past few weeks, I have spent time up in the Bradshaw Mountains where I have seen a lot of juvenile chipping sparrows and juvenile dark-eyed juncos. In these species, juvenile plumage is not similar to adult female plumage. While the juveniles don’t look like the adults, the fact that the juveniles are always seen hopping around with adult chipping sparrows (or with adult dark eyed juncos) is a strong clue and can help you identify them by whom they are associating.
Behavior: While the coloration and markings of juveniles may lack distinguishing characteristics that are easily observed in adults of the same species, the one thing that does not vary with age or maturity is the way the species behaves. For example, a juvenile mourning dove will act like an adult mourning dove. Juvenile spotted towhees-which look very different than adult towhees-will act like a towhee. Use the behavior you are observing as a clue in identifying the birds you are seeing, and match that behavior to the adult birds you are familiar with in your yard.
Diet: This identification tip is similar to behavior in the sense that juveniles will eat what their parents eat. Suppose you are seeing a small, drab, nondescript version of a lesser goldfinch feeding at your nyjer/thistle feeder. While it may not look like the goldfinches you are used to seeing, you can probably correctly assume that what you are seeing is a goldfinch, just by the fact that the bird is consuming seed from a nyjer/thistle feeder.
Body shape and posture: While the coloring may be “off,” the body type or shape and the posture of the bird should be the same in juveniles as it is in adults. There are some birds that are just really hard to identify when they aren’t the ‘right’ color, such as a young blue grosbeak. When you see an adult male blue grosbeak, there is no question that what you are looking at is a blue grosbeak. However, you could easily be stumped by a juvenile. Draw upon your knowledge of body shape, proportion and beak structure to make comparisons-chances are you will make the correct identification.
Hopefully these hints will aid you in being a better birder and improve your bird identification skills. For additional bird identification help, visit the online bird guide at www.jaysbirdbarn.com.
Until next week, Happy Birding!