To refresh your memory, here again is the photo for Bird Quiz #3. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying this bird.
As I mentioned in the quiz, I saw this bird in Tucson, Arizona in March. We also know it enters cavities and, at least in this case, that cavity is in a large cactus. Since the bird was doing this in the spring, it was probably building a nest or feeding young.
Just out of curiosity, I entered these facts—bird, Arizona, nest, cactus, cavity—into a Google search. Out of the 362,000 or so results, the 4th “hit” gave me a list of “birds nesting in saguaro cavities” complete with photos of the 14 possible species. Then it was a simple matter of elimination to ID our bird.
The internet can be very helpful, but what if you don’t have access to a computer? What other clues do we have?
If you had been with me the day I took this photo, you would have noticed that this is a very common bird. You would have heard it calling and seen the rest of its body.
But what if you only have this photo to go on? What else can we glean?
For one, we can get an idea of the size of the bird… not petite (like a gnatcatcher), not large (like a raptor). It has orange under its legs, and strong black-and-white markings under its tail.
We can eliminate the birds at the front of the field guide, since it’s unlikely to be any sort of bird associated with water. We can eliminate most of the rest of the families too—it’s clearly not a hummingbird, or a swallow, or a warbler. But there are a number of birds with this color combination. What about those?
This is when it really helps to know the birds of the place you are birding. A beginner would be stuck thumbing through the field guide, looking at all the birds with black and white and orange, wondering which one it could be. A more experienced birder would easily recognize the iconic Arizona bird, the Cactus Wren.
When I’m going to a new place to bird, I like to print out a list of possible species and study their pictures ahead of time. That way I have a good idea of what to expect and I can identify them without taking time to look them up.
The drawings of the Cactus Wren in my Sibley guide only show the bird from the side. The National Geographic guide clearly illustrates the orange underbelly and black-and-white spotted tail. While I may only carry one guide with me on a hike, I like to have several resources waiting in the car. Having another viewpoint can make all the difference when you’ve only seen the bird from one angle.
Here is a picture of the whole bird: