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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