For the Birds Radio Program: Identifying birds in flight

Original Air Date: Oct. 24, 1988

How can bird counters possibly identify the many birds flying over?

Duration: 3′44″


(Recording of a Lapland Longspur)

A couple of weeks ago I did a program about counting 95,948 birds at the Lakewood Pumping Station, and since then most of the people who’ve commented about it couldn’t get over that ridiculously high number of birds–after all, it totaled over five birds every second. But some people were more interested in how the heck we identify these migrants in the first place. When you see distant songbirds, how can you tell if they’re robins or grackles or Purple Finches? they wonder.

The first step in identifying a speck bird is to see how it flaps its wings. Birds that flap slowly include most of the hawks, and also crows, ravens, and Blue Jays. Robins and blackbirds flap their wings a little faster. You can tell them apart at a distance because robins pull their wings back toward their tails as if they were paddling a canoe, while blackbirds have a more up-and-down wing movement, like jays but faster and stronger. Small birds like warblers and finches have a quick wing flap.

Once you have a feel for the rhythm of wingbeats, the next step is to watch flock flight patterns. Most finches and woodpeckers have an undulating pattern that is easy to recognize. Robins, jays, crows and ravens, which fly in more of a straight line, also tend to hold their position within the flock. Blackbirds constantly change places with one another, which makes them difficult to count, though Pine Siskins are by far the hardest species of all because they move both fast and erratically.

Call notes are very important in identifying migrating birds from a distance. I just about always hear Evening Grosbeaks before I see them.

(Recording of an Evening Grosbeak)

Goldfinches are also easy to identify by call.

(Recording of an American Goldfinch)

Purple Finches make a dry tink tink call that distinguishes them from other birds.

(Recording of a Purple Finch)

Yellow-rumped Warblers make a dry chip sound like an annoyed math teacher.

(Recording of a Yellow-rumped Warbler)

Palm Warblers sound more like an annoyed music teacher.

(Recording of a Palm Warbler)

Lapland Longspurs combine a rattle call with sweet whistles.

(Recording of a Lapland Longspur)

Migrating Blue Jays and robins are virtually always silent. Crows and ravens are, too, which makes identifying them in fall especially difficult. Most of the year a raven’s tail is wedge shaped because the center feathers are longer than the outer ones, whereas a crow’s tail is round because the feathers are all the same size. But this time of year crows are molting their tail feathers, and if the outer ones aren’t fully grown the crow looks like a raven. Once in a while they call and then they’re easy to tell apart–crows make a distinctive caw:

(Recording of an American Crow)

Ravens croak.

(Recording of a Common Raven)

Water Pipits make a sweet “pipit” call.

(Recording of a Water Pipit)

It takes a long time to get good at identifying the common birds at a distance, and the reason it’s such a rewarding exercise is that even common birds are always doing new things, and making new sounds, to keep us on our toes. Bird counting may never take the place of night baseball, but it’s the sport for me.

(Recording of a Lapland Longspur)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds..”