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Those Confusing Birds!

By Drew Jones

In the past, Winter Bird Count participants have had some difficulty differentiating between some look-alike species. For the count, birds need to be identified to the species level. Merely putting down “sparrow” or “hawk” cannot be included in the count. These tips might help you distinguish some especially tricky birds.

Chickadees – These little birds are really tough. The larger black-capped chickadee is far more common in the mountainous regions in winter, while the Carolina chickadee is observed more at lower elevations. Look for the white patch along the folded wing of the black-capped, or better yet, learn to tell its lower-pitched song.

Finches – It is easy to mistake the introduced, opportunistic house finch for the native purple finch. The males of both species look like they were dunked, head-first, in a glass of cranberry juice, although the color of the male house finch varies from purple red to reddish orange. The male purple finch’s breast is almost an unstreaked white. Look for the bold brown streaks on the chest and stomach of the house finch. The females, which lack the reddish highlights, are even harder to tell apart. The female house finch, however, lacks the pale eyebrow and dark throat
streaks of her purple finch counterpart.

Woodpeckers – Don’t be confused by the hairy and downy woodpeckers, which are almost identically patterned and colored. The hairy is significantly larger, the size of a robin, whereas the smaller downy is closer in stature to a sparrow. The beak of the hairy is long, about the length of its head, while the downy’s beak is considerably smaller. The males of both species have a red fleck on their napes that is absent from the females.

Hawks -These unexpected backyard visitors will thrill you with their swoops and dives in pursuit of the songbirds at your feeder (remember hawks have to eat too). The stream-lined accipiters can be tricky. Both the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks have red eyes and are slate gray above with reddish-brown underparts. The larger Cooper’s has a rounded tail and is approximately the size of a crow, whereas the more common sharp-shinned is just a bit larger than a robin and has a more squared-off tail. Immatures of both species lack the red eyes and grayish coloration on top, but have brown vertical chest streaks which are bolder on the sharp-shinned.

You might also see the red-tailed hawk which is larger and has a stockier head and shorter tail than the accipiters. This impressive buteo has brownish coloration that includes a uniformly reddish-brown tail with a white margin.

For more complete species descriptions consult your field guide.

--Drew Jones is a former DNR wildlife biologist.