Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Young Birds

Dear Bird Folks:

Don’t make fun of me, but I think I have a new kind of finch in my yard. This odd bird looks and acts very much like a female House Finch, but it has those horns on the top of its head. I swear I’m not making this up. I can’t find it in my bird book. Is there such a bird as a Horned House Finch?

-Terry, W. Harwich


Terry, Terry, Terry,

Why would I make fun of you? I never make fun of anybody, do I? Just because you have a bird with horns on its head, flying around your yard, isn’t any reason for me to make fun of you. Besides, if I get you angry, you might send your Devil Finch over here to poke me with its pitchfork.

Let’s see, a horned bird in August, eh? That’s odd. If it were May I would understand; there are lots of horny birds around in the springtime. By late summer the nesting season is all but over and our yards are filled with goofy looking juvenile birds. The horned birds that you are seeing are nothing more than brand new finches that haven’t totally lost their baby down yet. We see these freaky finches every year. Occasionally some young birds keep a few tufts of feathers on the top of their heads, even after their juvenile feathers have grown in. In a few weeks the molt will be complete and the horns will be gone. You’ll be safe from the Devil’s pitchfork attacks for another year or at least until Halloween.

You shouldn’t feel badly about being fooled by the horned finches Terry; lots of people have been calling about them. Late summer is probably the toughest time of year to identify birds. We hear from more bewildered people in August than any other time of year, not counting election day.

Why are birds so tough to ID right now? As we’ve already pointed out, we are suddenly up to our necks in baby birds. Some baby birds look just like their parents, while others look like they were adopted from overseas. Birds like chickadees, which are the world’s best birds, don’t create any confusion at all. They look like the adults the minute they step out of the nest. Chickadees are way too cool for them to ever have an immature look. But then there are the young robins that don’t look anything like the adults. Instead of having the slate gray back and a signature brick-red breast, the young robins are all washed out and speckley. They’ll remind you more of the acne faced teenager, working the drive-thru at Burger Land, than a classic robin. Besides robins: bluebirds, waxwings, cardinals, wrens, tanagers and orioles are among the species that spend the first few months of their life dressed differently than their parents.

The next reason for so much confusion is that people are too lazy or too cheap to invest in a decent field guide. All day long I have otherwise intelligent customers looking for a simple chart or poster to help them identify birds. A poster??? Massachusetts sees over 350 different species of birds each year. A poster?? No offense to the poster loving crowd, but you would need a poster the size of bed sheet to properly display the local birds and their assorted seasonal plumages. A new and updated field guide would go a long way to help you with your bird identification. And I’m talking about a new ‘adult’ field guide by Sibley, Peterson or National Geographic, not some ten-page kids booklet, with a cartoon picture of a cardinal in a sailor’s hat on the cover.

If you can’t afford a new field guide or haven’t saved enough Green Stamps, you can also identify young birds from their behavior. Young birds are very noisy as they shake and beg for food. They also are spastic flyers, often looking unsure if they really want to be off the ground at all. Finally, you should be able to tell what species a young bird is just from the company it keeps. If a bird is begging from a robin, you can be pretty sure it’s a baby robin. No other bird wants worms shoved down its throat if it can help it.

I think a more current field guide would make identifying young birds much easy for you Terry. Although I should talk about being current; I’m still making jokes about Green Stamps.