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A guide to not mis-identifying birds

Identifying birds is tough. It's tough for experienced birders and it's even tougher for new birders. Birds have a variety of different plumages including: winter, summer, juvenile, first spring, male, female, eclipse and combinations thereof. Plus they molt. So don't feel bad if you can't identify every bird you see. On the other hand, learning those different plumage patterns, and the other clues that help identify birds, is what makes this hobby fun.

In this article, I'd like to give you, the new birder, eleven tips on how to avoid mis-identifying birds. This happens a lot, and I've come up with just a few recommendations which will help you more accurately determine what that little, flying critter is in your back yard.

1. Carefully study the bird. Start at the tip of the bill and work your way back, memorizing the sizes, shapes, and colors as well as the plumage of the bird. Also note the vocalizations, food source, behavior and the habitat. If you can make written notes, that's even better. But most people don't carry sufficient office supplies into the field. Memorize what you can. 

2. Avoid looking in the field guide for as long as possible. Try not to flip through the book until you're pretty sure you've "gotten" the bird. If you see a rare bird, you'll want to convince others of your find. You can only do that by recounting to them the field-marks of the bird. Saying, "it looks just like the picture in the field-guide," won't help. You must tell them WHY it looks like the picture in the field guide.

3. Before you open up the field guide, recapitulate the features of the bird in your mind. One of the problems that can occur is having your mental image of the bird corrupted by what you see in the field guide. So try to prevent this from happening by "freezing" it in your brain first. Again, it's best if you can make your notes first, before you look in the field-guide.

4. When you DO finally look in the field guide, don't commit to the first bird you find. Find at least one other bird that looks like your bird. Now ask yourself why it's not that bird instead of the one you had decided on. Sometimes, if they are similar birds, the field guide will give you some hints on the differences. This is VERY important. Always go through the exercise of eliminating all of the other possible birds. Because other birders will ask why you decided it was Boreal Chickadee instead of a Black-capped Chickadee.

5. A common mistake for brand-new birders is that they flip through the field-guide and settle on the first bird they find that looks like their bird. I call this the "first-page" syndrome. I once had someone report a Great White Heron. This bird is only found in Florida and would be a spectacular find in northern Illinois. I checked the field guide and it appeared on the page just before the picture of the much more common Great Egret, a very similar bird.

6. Read the text in the field-guide, don't just look at the pictures. Does the your bird match both the text and the picture?

7. Be wary of basing your identification on plumage alone. Plumage is probably the most variable feature of a bird and if you're not paying attention to other things, like the shape and color of the bill, behavior, vocalizations, leg color and eye rings, you may be making a mistake. I once had a call from a woman who had five American Bitterns roosting in a tree. If she had read the text, and looked for another similar bird, she would have discovered that they were actually immature Black-crowned Night-herons.

8. Does the range of the bird in the field guide match where you're seeing the bird? Is it the right season for the bird? Rare birds show up outside of their range all of the time. However, the odds for the out-of-range bird are much lower than for local birds. Make sure you can legitimately eliminate the more likely local birds. In the Chicago area, you're much more likely to get a Summer Tanager than a Hepatic Tanager. So read the field guide carefully, and rule out the Summer Tanager, before you convince yourself you've found an Hepatic Tanager.

9. Pay particular attention to the female and immature plumages. These will often confuse new birders who don't realize that the female Western Tanager they think they have is really a female Scarlet Tanager.

10. Use a local field guide. I had one fellow call in a whole bunch of western birds. It had me amazed at the amount of vagrants showing up at the tiny park he was calling from until I realized that he was using a western guide. Here in Illinois, we have eastern birds (most of the time).

11. Don't focus on size. This is a dangerous field-mark to rely on, particularly when the bird isn't near any other birds for comparison. Crows can be mistaken for grackles and Red-tailed Hawks can be mistaken for eagles. 

Now you have eleven ways to better identify the birds you see. And if you do see an Hepatic Tanager, call me!



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Updated 4/28/02
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