For the Birds: Seasonal Changes a Happening Thing

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Dark-eyed Junco female feeding juvie
Photo by Craig Kerns
By Christine Southwick

The Merlins nesting in Shoreline are now flying about and making lots of noise. 

The Kenmore Heronry is empty until next spring. 

The Osprey nests in Shoreline will soon be abandoned until next April, with the adults leaving for Central or South America. 

The juveniles will follow soon thereafter, finding their own way and meals.

And right now, environmentally-friendly yards have lots of hard-to-identify juvenile birds. Most juvenile birds look different from adults due to camouflage to help ensure their survival.

Here are three birds that I can offer tips to help you identify them.

Dark-eyed Junco showing white tail feathers
Photo by Craig Kerns
Many people had Dark-eyed Juncos nesting in their flower pots, or hiding underneath ferns and in tall weeds (their nests are very well made, pretty even). 

The youngsters of these Oregon Juncos, our local subspecies, are striped brown and don’t have their distinctive head-coloring yet. 

The best way to tell these flittering ground birds is to look for their outer white tail feathers. 

When you see one of these confusing brown-jobbies watch for a flash of white in their tail as they fly away.

It is usually obvious, and is what birders call a “diagnostic clue”. 

If you see that flash of white, then it is a junco.

Juncos usually have two-three broods a year, and our local birds should be on their last brood. Both parents feed their offspring. I have found that males usually are feeding the youngsters from the first brood or two while the female is on the next clutch of eggs.

Spotted Towhee - first stage

Spotted Towhee second stage
Photo by Craig Kerns

Spotted Towhees
are hard to identify their first six months. When Spotted Towhees first leave the nest, they look like over-sized Song Sparrows with tail feathers and wings that are too dark, with some spots instead of varying shades of brown on their backs. 

About three-four weeks after they have fledged, their breast and lower body feathers start molting into that distinctive orange-red color of adult Spotted Towhees, but their dark-brownish flight feathers will not change until they do their first full-feather-replacing molt next spring.

Juvie Song Sparrow
Photo by Craig Kerns
That brings me to the next confusing brown ground bird—the Song Sparrow

Juvenile Song Sparrows don’t have distinctive streaking on their heads, nor do they have their distinctive breast spot. 

They are mostly just variations of brown with shading. If you have ruled out the other two juveniles, and a bird scurries on the ground through bushes, it is probably a Song Sparrow.

Offer food and water. Both the parents and the youngsters can use that extra protein and hydration.

Previous For the Birds columns can be seen here.


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