Pop quiz: Describe a blue jay. Blue with a crest? Okay, but where exactly is the blue on a blue jay? What’s white on a blue jay? What’s black on a blue jay? And what’s distinctive about a blue jay’s neck and face?
You could argue that we don’t need this kind of detail to identify a blue jay. We know a blue jay when we see one, in the same way we might recognize a tamarack. We may not know how many needles are clustered on a tamarack, but we damn well know a tamarack when we see one.
But we also know that details matter – maybe not for distinguishing jays, but certainly for identifying many other birds that we might dismiss or ignore because, “They all look alike.” I hear from far too many birders: “Uh, it’s a female duck,” or “I don’t do immature gulls,” or “What’s that sparrow, anyway?”
These worthy brown birds deserve better. To identify them, your usual birding skills apply. You’ll consider habitat, season, shape, plumage details, bill structure, vocalization, and behavior. But it also pays to know in advance which particular field marks work best for your otherwise forsaken bird group. Bill and leg color help us separate the white herons and egrets, for example. An eye ring and buff-colored neck wash allow us to distinguish Swainson’s thrush from gray-checked thrush. Relative tail length and head size help us tell a sharp-shinned hawk from a Cooper’s hawk. Without knowing these specifics before you encounter those classic birding challenges in the field, you may indeed enjoy the bird yet forgo naming it.
But I have additional advice (and emotional support) for birders who among these brown birds see pandemonium on the pages of their field guides: Get to know “reference birds.” A reference bird is the most common species among any confusing group. When you know a song sparrow, one of the most widespread birds in North America – and I mean really know every field mark on a song sparrow, from every angle, including the idiosyncrasies of its behavior – you will more easily identify similar sparrows that are not song sparrows. In other words, you must crawl among the common birds before you can walk with their uncommon lookalikes.
Take the LBB (little brown bird) pictured here. It looks like a song sparrow. It’s brown and streaky with a conical bill and a breast spot. But unlike our casual approach to the blue jay, this basic level of familiarity isn’t enough to determine this sparrow’s identity. Plenty of sparrows are brown and streaky. So to know and enjoy all the streaky sparrows among us, first recognize intimately, unequivocally, the reference song sparrow, a bird many of us encounter nearly every day except during winter. So, is this bird a song sparrow? If so, why? If not, why not?
Spend time outdoors studying reference birds. But also consult a field guide that illustrates sample birds and their distinct feather groups. It is one thing to note that a sparrow has dark stripes on its head (or a blue jay is blue with a crest). It is much better to know in advance how to look at a sparrow – to note its lores, auriculars, malar, lateral crown stripes, and supercillium (and these are only the head markings).
The same goes for big brown birds. For some groups, getting to know the reference bird is easier than you might think. Among female ducks, your first stop isn’t necessarily the maelstrom of those mottled brown feathers. On your reference bird – in this case, the mallard – begin with her bill. Orange with a prominent black saddle, that bill is unique among North American ducks (with only the gadwall coming close). When you see it, you will know with confidence that you’ve got a female mallard. Then you can study and learn her feathers. And then move on to those lovely female teal – the ducks with the dark bills.
By the way, our mystery sparrow is an (often overlooked) Lincoln’s sparrow, whose ultra-fine streaks on a buffy breast you’ll never see on a Song sparrow, which has heavier streaking and a bigger spot on a whitish breast. Song sparrows also have a whiter supercillium (“eyebrow”), more pronounced lateral throat stripes (the “Fu Manchu”), and a longer tail than Lincoln’s and most of our other streaky sparrows.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, guide, and consulting naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.