How to Name a Bird, Part 2

If you missed last Monday’s Part 1, be sure to read that post first. Now I’ll continue with my identification checklist.

What does it look like?
Golden-crowned Sparrow_CosumnesRiverPreserve-CA_LAH_0312
This is the obvious one, but even here there are often too many details to take them all in at once. I usually start with color, and “general impression of size and shape” (GISS). Are there any obvious marks that might narrow things down?

If the bird is still posing for me, I move to the details. What color is the eye, and is there an eye-ring? What about the beak? Long or short, pointed (for bug-catching) or wedge-shaped (for seed-cracking), curving or straight? On a sitting bird, do the wings protrude past the tail? What color are the legs and feet? Is there anything else that stands out?

In this case, the bird has a clear, gray breast and streaky black and brown back, tail, and wings (which have two white bars on them). The dark beak is designed for seeds. Legs are pinkish. There is a distinctive bright yellow patch on the top of its head.

Who might it be related to?
Chipping Sparrow_BlkForest_20100424_LAH_3382
Next, if possible, I try to narrow down my options to one (or maybe two) groups of birds. Do they remind me of ducks, hawks, or sandpipers? Woodpeckers or blackbirds? Sparrows (or other LBJs)?  Warblers, with their tiny pointed beaks and generally small size? Here in North America we are familiar with our resident bird families. I’ll have a much harder time doing this in Africa.

I was pretty sure that my unknown bird was related to a Chipping Sparrow (shown here) and other Emberizid Sparrows. See the resemblance?

What is it saying?
Some birds have very distinctive calls or songs, while others prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves. As bad as I am at learning bird songs, there are some even I can recognize—a Killdeer, Cactus Wren, or Banded Kingfisher, for example. For the rest, I usually carry a small digital recorder, allowing me to check my guesses against someone else’s recording, or pester my more savvy friends for help when I get home. I didn’t make a recording of this bird, but it was making squeaky, one-note chip sounds as it fed.

And the answer is…
With all the information I had gathered, I was quickly able to identify my bird as a Golden Sparrow. Not all birds are this easy to name, however. Even with a routine set of steps it takes time and practice to become familiar with the birds in a given area. Perhaps the best solution is to travel with an expert birder!

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