Don’t be so Juvenile! -An Examination of Adolescent Birds

As I indicated in my post about hatchlings, juvenile birds exhibit a whole different set of behaviors from younger birds that justify their own discussion. To quickly recap, the growing phases of a bird are: 1. Egg, 2. Hatchling (or nestling), 3. Juvenile, 4. Adult.

When observing a juvenile bird I often reflect on how appropriately they were named. In the English language juvenile has a negative connotation that many of its synonyms don’t carry. When one acts juvenile, one is usually acting in a way thought to be beneath our actual age. Acting childish. While I am sure that birds are not familiar with the nuance and cultural associations of the word juvenile, they often live up to its definition and all that it implies.

The best way to think of a juvenile bird is to compare it to a kid in Middle School. Awkward, gawky, silly, unknowledgeable, unworldly. All of these adjectives can be applied to the juvenile bird. This is the stage of their development when they set foot in the world on their own. And they aren’t really sure about the whole thing. Often their parents are at a discrete distance, observing and prepared to intervene.

Young birds can be a lot of fun to watch. Their antics as they interact with a world they don’t fully understand can sometimes leave you in stitches. Many of the young House Sparrows that visit my feeders have a really hard time figuring out how and where to perch. They loose their balance easily and sometimes they slide down the feeder pole in slow motion, unable to figure out what is going on, or how to stop it.

Often juveniles are fearless when it comes to getting a handout. Many of the young House Sparrows and even one or two young Blue Jays have come to my feeder and then opened their mouths expectantly to any adult bird that came near. One female Cardinal was particularly taken aback by this behavior. She hopped back and then quickly skirted away from a small army of open mouths. Most adults just ignore this behavior, although some parents will continue to mouth feed even as they are trying to teach their children to fend for themselves.

Sometimes juvenile behavior isn’t as funny. My parents have a lot of trouble with young Woodpeckers flying under their porch roof and nearly injuring themselves as they desperately look for a safe place to land. They soon learn, but the first few days are concerning, both of the birds and whoever has dared to sit on the porch.

It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a juvenile bird and an injured bird at first glance. Juveniles often flutter their wings at a quickened, almost frantic pace which can seem to indicate that they are hurt. In fact, this behavior is used in some species of bird to inform parents that the baby wishes to be fed.

Appearance and identification are sometimes difficult when it comes to juveniles. Even though many field guides provide an image of juvenile birds, each bird develops at its own rate, meaning that coloring and major identifying markers for some species may not be easily spotted. Some birds, such as the many kinds of Warblers, have very similar juvenile development, making an exact match hard. However, if you are having trouble identifying a bird, there are some quick clues you can look for which will tell you if you are looking at an immature bird.

Fuzz is the first big clue. Whether it is a downy fluff sticking out under the wings or covering the bird’s belly, immature feathers that don’t seem in harmony with the rest of the bird’s plumage can be a good indicator. Like baby teeth in humans, adult feathers develop gradually and many juvenile birds are still a bit fuzzy here or there.

Inconsistent coloring is another indicator. Some birds will look really weird, or almost sick, with very patchy coloring. Chances are they are a young bird, just developing the mature feathers of an adult of their species. Be careful of the time of year with this indicator though. Many birds, including several different species of duck, develop a different plumage when they are not breeding. When mating plumage is developing or phasing out they can exhibit similar patchy qualities to juvenile birds.

You may recognize the shape of a bird, or the overall appearance but it is not the correct color. There are many juvenile birds that develop mature looking feathers that are not fluffy but also do not resemble those of their parents. This is true of starlings. Many male juvenile birds resemble the adult female in coloring and develop their more colorful mating plumage slowly.

How big are they? Many young birds do not develop their full adult size immediately. If you have many of the same species near each other, compare the bird in question to others of the same kind. If it is smaller in statue, it is likely a juvenile. If other birds aren’t around for comparison, consider the bird’s own proportions. Does it’s beak or feet look too large? These signs can also indicate a bird that is not yet fully grown.

Depending on where you live, you may have a variety of fledglings visiting you all summer long as some birds have two or more broods. Generally, the juvenile phase lasts about four weeks for most feeder birds.

Additional Sources:

https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles

Types of Sparrows

Once you become a bird watcher, you become aware that many facts you took for granted are not 100% accurate. For example, “call a spade a spade” or “call a sparrow a sparrow.” Not necessarily untrue. However, there are twenty-one different types of sparrows listed in my Eastern North America bird book. So “sparrow” is clearly not specific enough.

I want to take some time in this post to point out of the differences between some of the most common sparrows, so you can begin to notice them yourselves. I am going to focus on four: House Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows and White-Throated Sparrows.

The House Sparrow is the most obvious starting point. Ubiquitous, especially whenever food is out for the taking, you see them in yards, woods, parks and city streets. I have so many of the little guys in my yard at this point I think they may have started having extra broods just because of my feeders.

Male and female House Sparrows look different. The males have a whitish-gray belly with a black bib on the upper chest, flanked by a white patch on either side. The black from the bib carries up their neck to under their eyes. A gray cap sits on top of their heads, with two patches of brown running from the sides of their heads into their brown wings, back and tail feathers. The brown on their wings, back and tail is broken up with thin stripes of black.

The females are a bit more muted and boring, but if you look closely their feathers have a few secrets to share. The female’s feathers are mostly tan, with her underbelly being lighter than the feathers on her head and back. If you look closely you will notice she has a light stripe on both sides of her head which include her eyes. The wings of the female are similar to her male counterpart, being a darker brown, with stripes of white and black mixed in.

The House Sparrow is in fact not a sparrow at all. Introduced to North American from Europe in the 1850s, they are actually from the Weaver Finch family. Their populations thrived in their new home and today they can be seen throughout the United States all year long. They are also a common sight because they are not remotely scared of people. Much less skittish than other birds, they have the advantage for scavenging food in busy areas.

Food isn’t the only thing they scavenge. Their nests have been known to incorporate paper and even plastic into the weave. They usually have 4-6 eggs each nesting, with two or three broods in a season. They are at it like rabbits! They like cavities to nest in, so they are big fans of bird houses.

Chipping Sparrows are also fairly common to my yard in the summer. They visit feeders and they forage the ground around them, so you can easily spot them hopping about. One of the biggest physical differences between a Chipping Sparrow and the other three species I am discussing, is that the Chipping Sparrow is smaller. The Chipping Sparrow is five inches to the House Sparrow’s six inches and when you are that small, one inch does make a difference when it comes to aggressive behavior at the feeders.

Unlike the House Sparrow, all Chipping Sparrows look alike, regardless of gender. The Chipping Sparrow’s most defining feature is its light brown or chestnut cap. Its chest is gray and it has dark, streaked brown wings with hints of white. If you are able to see one of these little guys close enough (probably not with the naked eye) you will also notice a black stripe going across his face, in line with his beak and across his eye. This black stripe created a gray stripe above it on both sides, which separates the black from the edge of the brown cap.

Chipping Sparrows may be little, but don’t underestimate their toughness. They can survive without a drink for three weeks. They don’t try to brave a northern winter though. Instead they head to Mexico for the winter months.

Chipping Sparrows typically have about four eggs per nest and they usually have two broods each season. The female is the primary caregiver, incubating the eggs and feeding the new hatchlings. During the female’s incubation of the eggs, the male Chipping Sparrow will try to find additional mates.

Song Sparrows are a bit less common to my yard. But they do visit on occasion and I often see them and hear them on hikes. Not unlike the Red-Winged Blackbird, they are particularly partial to marshy areas and can often be found near water.

As you can image from its name, the Song Sparrow likes to sing a lot. Often their song is the best way to spot them. They are loners but they aren’t bashful. Often you will find them perched on a conspicuous branch or reed singing their hearts out. This is because they not only sing to attract a mate, but also to mark their territory. To hear the song of a Song Sparrow, click here: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Song+Sparrow+%281%29

Though they will visit the vicinity of a feeder, Song Sparrows rarely go to the feeder directly. Instead you will see them hopping around beneath a feeder, gleaning seeds from the ground. You will recognize the Song Sparrow by the streaks on its chest. Song Sparrows are white or cream with random short, dark brown streaks running vertically along their chest. If you look closely, you will also see a larger spot, usually near the center of their chest. Their wings are similar to those of other sparrows, brown with stripes of white and lighter brown. There is also a brown stripe on each cheek, breaking up the white on the Song Sparrow’s face.

White-Throated Sparrows are my personal favorite. They usually come to the feeder alone, and glean around on the ground looking for food. They aren’t aggressive with other birds, but neither are they intimidated. They are about the same size as the House Sparrow, and they usually won’t be pushed around. Like the Chipping Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrows head to Mexico for the winter.

I think they are the coolest looking sparrows with race-car yellow-stripe eyebrows. Besides the yellow over its eyes, the White-Throated Sparrow has…you guessed it: white feathers on its throat. While both male and female White-Throated Sparrows look similar, across both sexes there are some which have white stripes and others that have tan stripes on their heads. Based on what I have read, birds with white stripes seem to prefer mating with birds with tan stripes, but I am not sure what the deal is with that.

Hopefully after this little introduction you will start to spot the differences in Sparrows yourself!