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

Spotting Baby Birds

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



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  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cleaned...so cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
  • I know and do clean my feeders both for seed and for hummingbird liquid. I have a vase full of different size brushes that are only for this purpose. I have friends however who NEVER clean their feeders or bird baths, and it’s gross! I am ringing this article and will have to give out to the few offenders I know. I can’t imagine looking at such mess and not cleaning it, but not everyone thinks resale. Part of responsible bird watching/loving is to make the time and take the effort to do this.
    by Carol, Tue, 10 Jul 2018
  • Can juniper titmice be found in eastern US? In Sourh Carolina? I swear we saw one!
    by Marnie Lynn Browder, Sun, 10 Jun 2018