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Fri, Feb. 28

Tips for IDing birds in the backyard

As many of "our" summer birds arrive, new bird-watchers find it challenging to identify the different species they are seeing in their yard for the first time. One of the difficulties in identifying a new bird is that there is frequently a big difference between male and female plumage within the same species.

A few of our recent arrivals include lazuli buntings, summer and western tanagers, and black-headed grosbeaks. In each of these species, there is a significant difference between male and female plumage. This extreme difference in coloration for two birds that are of the same species creates a situation where many people get confused.

If you own a bird book you already know that many bird books seem to be biased in their approach - they tend to emphasize pictures of males of a species because they are much more colorful than their female counterparts.

As already mentioned, there can be a high degree of variability within a species. There is male plumage, female plumage, juvenile plumage, breeding plumage and winter plumage. I have found that most field guides using photographs don't illustrate all of the potential variations in plumage. Typically, they are going to show you a male in breeding plumage.

But when you are looking out the window, how often are you seeing a male in breeding plumage? Maybe what you are seeing is a female, or a juvenile, or maybe it is wintertime, and not breeding season. It is for this reason that I personally use "The Sibley Guide" for bird identification, because

the illustrator shows many of the different variations that occur within a species.

So how do you know if what you are seeing is really a new bird, or just a female of a more easily identifiable species? I have several tips on this dilemma. One idea is to not focus just on plumage, but look at other identifiable features such as size, shape, proportions and behavior.

While a female black-headed grosbeak will look (color-wise) remarkably different from a male grosbeak, there will also be a lot of non-color related similarities. First, they will be the same size. Second, they will share the same shape and posture. Third, the behavior between the two will be nearly identical.

Probably one of the best ways to figure out if what you are seeing is a female of a more common species is to observe with whom the new bird is socializing. Sometimes it helps to identify birds by association. If you see a pair of birds that are exhibiting similar behaviors - maybe they are even feeding at the same feeder at the same time - it is possible that they are of the same species.

Lazuli buntings offer a stunning contrast in color. The males are a brilliant blue color, and the females are rather plain and unassuming. Yet, they are the same size, they eat the same food, and they will generally show up and leave at the same time. I hope you will find some of these ideas helpful when identifying a new bird.

For me, seeing a new species and identifying it correctly, is extremely gratifying.

We have recently received a lot of excellent photographs from customers on many of our spring arrivals and I invite you to come by the store to look at these pictures. Happy Birding!

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 and click on Ask Eric, which will link you with my e-mail address

Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, a backyard wild bird store located in the Safeway/Kmart shopping center on Willow Creek Road. He has been an avid birder for over 40 years.

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