Question of the Week
Q. I often see birds on telephone wires while I’m driving—how do I figure out what they are from such a short glimpse?
A. Quickly identifying a mystery bird requires a familiarity with size & shape, color pattern, behavior and habitat. These are the basic four keys of bird identification, and they can make it possible to identify a bird with just the briefest of sightings. We’ve got several ways to help you practice:
- Visit our Building Skills pages for a step by step introduction to each of the four keys of identification.
- Watch our free Inside Birding videos and let expert birders Chris Wood and Jessie Barry demonstrate the finer points of the four keys for you.
- Check out our Merlin Bird ID app, a helpful took to identify birds while on the go.
- It also helps to keep a running list in your head of which birds are most likely in your location and time of year. Our eBird project is great for that—use the Bar Charts function or explore recent sightings using the maps.
- If you want to delve deeper, check out our low-cost Be a Better Birder tutorials, filled with info, tips, and interactive quizzes and games.
Now: how do you put your knowledge into practice? Let’s imagine it’s early October, and you are on the road somewhere outside Chicago. From the passenger’s seat you see a bird perched on a telephone wire. You note: Robin-sized, buffy color, long tail, round body, small head. Your curiosity is piqued, but the moment has passed.
First, let’s assemble that running list of birds likely to be on a telephone wire in the Midwest: American Kestrel, European Starling, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, various swallows…. these are the usual suspects.
Based on the size we can eliminate the larger pigeon, and the smaller House Finch and swallows. The long tail rules out starling, bluebird and robin. The color is wrong for a blackbird. That leaves American Kestrel and Mourning Dove. You noted the body was round and the head small (like a dove) rather than slender and blocky headed (like a falcon). Though you may not be able to be 100 percent certain, Mourning Dove is looking more and more likely.
The reality is, when identifying a bird from a moving vehicle you may never be 100% certain what you are looking at. And please remember to do your road birding from the passenger’s seat, letting the driver concentrate on the road. By applying these basic identification skills you can make a very well-educated guess. Good luck!
Past Questions of the Week
Q. Why do woodpeckers like to hammer on houses? And what can I do about it?
Q. I live in a high-rise apartment in the city. How can I attract birds?
Q. There's a bird in my yard I've never seen before. How can I find out what it is?
Q. I’m getting a little tired of winter—What are some of the first spring birds to arrive, and when will they get here?
Q. Why do birds have such elaborate and varied courtship rituals?
Q. How can Bald Eagles survive in northern areas after all the lakes have frozen?
Q. How long do wintering Snowy Owls stay with us before they return to their breeding grounds?
Q. Are cardinals brighter in winter?
Q. Will birds use nest boxes to roost in for warmth during the winter?
Q. There's a hummingbird at my feeder in the dead of winter. Will he be okay?
Q. Is it unusual to see American Robins in the middle of winter?
Q. How do birds survive in very cold temperatures?
Q. Why don't birds get cold feet?
Q. Do birds store food for the winter?
Q. What can you tell us about the habitat associations of partridges and in particular whether pear trees are ever involved?
Q. A hawk has started hunting the feeder birds in my yard. What can I do?
Q. How much do birds eat each day?
Q. Where did the domestic turkey come from?
Q. I thought geese migrated south in the winter and north in the summer. Why did I just see a flock of Canada Geese flying in the "wrong" direction?
Q. Why do migratory birds crash into buildings at night and how can people prevent it from happening?
Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?
Q. How do birds prepare for long migrations?
Q. Should I stop feeding birds in fall so they can start their migration?
Q. What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
Q. How can I keep birds from hitting my windows?
Q. I’m seeing fewer birds in my yard. Is something affecting their populations?
Q. I found a baby bird. What should I do?
Q. I found a nest near my house and want to observe it but I am worried about disturbing it. Can you give me any advice?
Q. Sometimes I see little birds going after a big bird. Why do they do this?
Q. My feeders are being overrun with pigeons and blackbirds who eat all the food and keep the smaller birds away. What can I do?
Q. How can I share my bird photos with the Lab?
Q. How do I keep the squirrels in my yard away from my feeders and bird seed?
Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?
Q. Should I stop feeding hummingbirds in the fall so that they will migrate?
Q. After birds leave a nest, can I clean out the nest for future use?