Identification tips for backyard birders
As the owner of a backyard wild bird store, customers frequently ask me bird identification questions. Sometimes the verbal descriptions I hear from customers are excellent, and I can readily identify the bird in question. On other occasions the description is inadequate, leaving me uncertain as to what they might have seen.
Certainly one of the joys (and challenges) of bird watching is being able to identify a "new" bird the first time you see it. Identifying birds can be similar to a jigsaw puzzle ‹ there are many pieces to the puzzle which all need to fit together to complete the picture.
Frequently, when individuals see a "new" bird for the first time, they key in on some of the physical attributes of the bird such as its size, color and any unusual or distinctive markings such as an eye ring, eye stripe or wing bars.
When referencing a bird book, it is not realistic to expect that one picture is going to be representative of all occurrences of any given species. For example, maybe the bird you saw was a male, or perhaps it was a female, or a juvenile, or maybe the bird was in winter plumage instead of breeding plumage. There can be a lot of variables in bird plumage making identification very challenging.
While the physical appearance of birds can provide many clues to aid in identification, one of the most critical aspects or pieces of the puzzle is observing bird behavior. The behavior of wild birds is fairly consistent between males, females and juveniles, regardless of the time of year.
When you see a new bird in your yard for the first time, there are certain characteristics of which to make note. Where did you see the bird? Was it down on the ground or up in a tree? If it was on the ground, did it hop or walk? If it was feeding down on the ground, did it scratch (like quail and towhees) to uncover food sources? Did it exhibit any "nervous" habits such as flicking its tail or wings repeatedly? If it was in a tree or shrub, did it sit still, or was it flitting about and moving constantly? Did you see it at a seed or nectar feeder? Was it by itself or was it part of a flock of similarly marked birds?
Here are two quick examples to illustrate how behavior can help identify birds. If you were to see a "blue bird" down on the ground feeding on seed, you could surmise that what you were seeing was not a bluebird, but a lazuli bunting, as buntings are seedeaters, whereas bluebirds are insect and berry eaters. Bluebirds spend little time on the ground, but a lot of time perched in open settings in search of insects.
If you were to see a bird that had a lot of black, orange and white plumage, you might be tempted to assume it is an oriole. However, if you saw this same bird sitting at a feeder eating black-oil sunflower seed, you would know it was a black-headed grosbeak and not an oriole which eats nectar and insects.
I would encourage you to make mental notes about bird behavior the next time you see a new bird in your yard. This practice will increase your birding knowledge and help you identify new birds more quickly and accurately.
If you have specific questions or issues related to wild birds which you would like discussed in future articles, you can submit them to Jay's Bird Barn, 1046 Willow Creek Road, Suite 105, Prescott, AZ 86301 or log onto www.JaysBirdBarn.com and click on "Ask Eric" which will link you with my e-mail address Eric@JaysBirdBarn.com. Until next week, happy birding!
Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, a backyard wild bird store at 1046 Willow Creek Road in the Safeway/Kmart shopping center. He has been an avid birder for more than 40 years.