May 16, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2018

Spotting Baby Birds

A young house finch with "horns." Photo by Adobe stock.
Share:

As spring turns to summer and the first crop of baby birds appears on lawns, at bird feeders, and generally everywhere possible, I know that the phone will ring in my office at Bird Watcher's Digest and a confused voice on the other end of the line will say, "There's this bird—I think it's a finch or a sparrow, it's streaky and has a conical bill, but it's got horns! What bird is it?"

Within a few days, another caller will say, "There's a gray bird at my feeders, and for the life of me I cannot find it in my field guide! It's got no field marks at all!"

Ah, the confusing baby birds of spring! I guess this is why some folks say that spring can really hang you up the most. Baby birds often look only a tiny bit like their parents' adult plumage, so it's easy to get confused when an unfamiliar feathered critter shows up in the backyard.

A Bird with Horns?

Two of the most common backyard birds cause much confusion when their just-fledged youngsters appear on the scene. My first hypothetical caller was seeing the always-confusing horned baby house finch. As they lose their downy natal plumes and their juvenal plumage grows in, these young finches retain a few feathers on top of the head (where they cannot preen themselves). As these long, downy feathers wear out, they do look a lot like horns. Within a few days, the "horns," too, fall out, and the fledgling looks like a normal gray-brown and streaky house finch. As it cheeps to be fed, it's likely to be attended to by one of its parents, giving an excellent clue to its identity.

An adult white-throated sparrow feeds a fledgling brown-headed cowbird.

An Imposter

The second phone-caller is describing the fledgling without field marks—the young brown-headed cowbird. These birds are drab gray overall, with some fine streaking on the breast and scalloping on the back. They look like oversized house finches. Further complicating things is the fact that young cowbirds are never raised by adult cowbirds, so the adult that is accompanying and feeding the young bird will certainly be another species— perhaps a warbler, tanager, sparrow, oriole, or vireo. By early fall, the young cowbirds are beginning to lose the streaking and starting to look more like their biological (not adoptive) parents.

If you see a streaky or spotted, awkward, cheeping bird in your backyard this summer, watch it carefully. A parent may still be caring for it. If you have to attempt an identification in the absence of a tell-tale adult bird, look past the fledgling's plumage and consider its size, overall shape, bill, and behavior. These clues will almost certainly point you in the right direction.



What do you think? Tell us!

comments powered by Disqus

New On This Site

The Latest Comments

  • I understand that the ducks' blood vessel arrangement in their feet is to provide the benefits of the counter-current heat exchanger mechanism; returning cold venous blood from the feet is warmed by the descending warm arterial blood, preventing excess heat loss by the feet and avoiding cold blood from chilling the body. This means that the feet are cold, not warm.
    by Frank Barch, Sat, 02 Jan 2021
  • I have the same situation. The feeder is attached to the middle of a large picture window that goes ceiling to floor w/ no ledge or sill for animals to climb or balance. Yet every morning all the sunflower seeds have been cracked open and hulls left. Any ideas what it is?
    by Liza Fox, Sun, 15 Nov 2020
  • I have a bird feeder that sticks to my window and I've been hearing noises against the window at night right now its going on. But whatever it is it is aware of me. And when I get to window it leaves.I can't imagine a squirrel or mouse or possom being able to get at it. ...So as I was reading this article im to assume no bird eats at night. Or no birds will eat at night. Why is that? Then im also thinking of a sinereo that could a lost confused bird eat at night. This eating thing is watching meI turn out the light go there noise dissappears..Thank you.
    by Nosferatu, Thu, 05 Nov 2020
  • I have metal baffles (cones) on my pole for my bird feeders. Something is still tempting them at night. What else could it be? Deer???
    by Ella Spencer Connolly, Thu, 27 Aug 2020
  • I found where he lives, then I keep him up all day by singing at full volume! Hah, that'll show the little sucker!
    by Pike Juan, Tue, 11 Aug 2020