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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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018