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Confusing Times (Fledgling Birds)

Photo Group
Northern Cardinal
Photo by: 
Mary Nemecek

Have you noticed any new birds in your yard lately? Two things happen this time of year that generate lots of phone calls and e-mails. The number of young birds in various states of molt is pretty impressive and they hardly ever look like the pictures in field guides. This coincides with the southward movement of neo-tropic migrants from areas north of us.

To make identifying young birds even more confusing, many of our nesting birds have pulled off multiple nests so there are young of the same species in different stages of molt. Young cardinals, for example, that hatched back in April will look very much like their adult parents but those that hatched in late July or August will still have a dark bill and look very “ragged”.

While spring migration for most birds involves a mass movement during a narrow window of a few weeks, fall migration is quite different.

Birds that fail to attract a mate or lose a nest may move back through as early as July. When you nest at the top of the world, your window to pull off a successful nest is very short.

Neotropical migrants tend to leave their nesting grounds in stages. Adult males are often the first to head south, then the adult females, leaving the young birds to figure out things on their on. They have never made this journey but the shorting daylight hours are “tugging” at their bodies to leave.

Identifying these birds can be tricky. Remember that most field guides do not do a good job of showing you the varieties of plumage choices in birds. I find that the Sibley Guide to Birds is the best. When you look at this “new” bird, make physical or mental notes about features that do not change. Color is the least dependable field mark. Size, shape, bill type and how it is acting can all be great helps in bird identification.

If you are really stumped, take a photo and send it or bring it to us at the store (mark@backyardbirdcenterkc.com). We can often make an ID out of even a poor picture. The important thing is to try. Making mistakes is the quickest way to learn and it is extremely rewarding when you get it right!

By Mark McKellar