Friday, February 19, 2010

If it was easy, it wouldn't be fun.

When we first moved from The City to The Country, I knew a few birds. Really, who CAN'T call a cardinal or a blue jay at first glance? Imagine my surprise when I found that not all birds are as easy to put a name to!

Once tucked away in the Little House in the Not-So-Big-Woods, I found that I liked having proper names for things. It's much better to talk about the Southern Prickly Ash than about "that tree with the weird pointy bark." It's the same with birds. I'd rather say "Look, there's a chipping sparrow" than "Hey, there's that little sparrow-looking thing."

So, with field guide in one hand and binoculars in the other, I set out to look for distinguishing marks on everything within sight that grew, crawled, slithered, or flew. I discovered the agony of trying to analyze the subtle difference in shading between 2 almost identical birds in the guide, and then apply it to a real live one: a bird that doesn't want to sit perfectly still in the exact pose as the exquisite picture in my hand.

Case #1 (Photo courtesy of Ken Blackwell, from Flickr )
Even I knew it was a woodpecker. I didn't know there so many kinds. It did have a red head. Perhaps it was a red-headed woodpecker! (I'm logical like that) wasn't. It could be a red-bellied woodpecker. What does the book"...distinguished by the wash of pale red on the belly..."

The belly??!!?? It's a woodpecker! Their bellies stay pressed against the tree trunk! I can't remember how many times I followed the infernal winged things from branch to branch, binoculars making circular indentations around my eyes, quietly moaning "pleeeeaaaaassssse turn around!" I'm sure it got to be a game with them. "Hey, watch me hop up on this branch, but I'll turn away from her so she can't see my front side!" The bird that was finally careless enough to let me catch a glimpse of that rosy glow must have been heckled by all of his friends.

Case #2
(photo left, courtesy of Don Sutherland, from Flickr)
Again with the woodpeckers! "Hairy" or "Downy"? Check the all-knowing Reference Book. "Hairy woodpeckers are larger." Refrain from throwing Reference Book across the yard. That description would be great if only I could persuade one of each to perch side by side on a tree trunk, so I could do a little comparative measurement. When there's only seeing one, it's less than useful. I did finally find a mention elsewhere that you can differentiate them by the ratio of beak length to head width. At that time, they started hiding their heads.
(photo right, courtesy of Anne Elliott, from Flickr)


  1. I hear this complaint from my mom constantly.
    I talked about who establishes bird names in the U.S. in a Nov. 8, 2009 post at

    I also have a good comparison picture of a Hairy and Downy at and the Red-bellied Woodpecker at

    After awhile the birds become like old family friends and you wonder why you had trouble remembering their names in the first place. Or if your like my mom, they'll always be "yellow bird" and "oh you know which one I mean."

  2. I've got the common woodpeckers separated now (mine are Downy). Working on the LSLTs (Little Sparrow-Looking Things).

  3. Your little woodpeckers in case #2 are definitely downies...I FINALLY saw enough of both species this winter to be able to distinguish them on sight, woot! Lovely red streak, too...the males are so handsome!

  4. My sentiments exactly! I like to put a scientific name with my birds, plants etc.
    If you think birds are frustrating, wait until you get to plants. :-)