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
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.