Identifying Young Birds

To prevent causing more problems, a carer should feed a bird its correct diet. But, to allow that to happen, FIRST we need to identify the bird. Adult birds are commonly seen, and (usually) easy to identify. But the young are mostly unseen by us until they fledge. So HOW do you know what a young kookaburra looks like if you've never seen one before? Members of the public often have no idea either - so don't always depend on their guess.

It is beyond the scope of this site to cover all birds, but the following words and photos can be a useful guide - or, at least, a starting point for you.

Newly hatched, and pre-fledgling, birds are often difficult to identify. If they come to you with a nest, this can be a clue to their identity (see Bird Nests).

Precocial chicks (from larger eggs, and usually ground-dwelling) start life fully feathered, usually with a "cameouflage" colour to suit their environment. Altricial chicks (smaller eggs, and helpless when young) start life bald, grow "down feathers" for a few weeks, and their colouring only becomes apparent as the pinfeathers emerge (around 2 to 5 weeks, depending on the breed). Do recognise though, that young birds often have different colouring on their way to being adult, but similar markings to the adult are evident in many, even when quite young.

Fledglings are more easily recognised, as their plumage is fully in place, thus making it easier to recognise the species.

Take, for example these photos of Sacred Kingfishers -

First photo - the adult. Note the characteristic light coloured breast, the white band that extends from under its neck, right around the nape to form a complete circle, the black line below the eye extending around its back, and the white fleck above the eye. Note, too, its beak - the adult has a dark upper, and light-merging-to-dark lower, mandible.

The second photo (older nestling) shows the white neck band clearly, still with rusty marks here and there - the black line below the eye, and the white above, are becoming quite distinct - so too, the cream breast (though still a bit rusty). The beak is still black at this age.

The third photo (very young nestling) shows these same markings - the white line around the neck is a rusty/cream and indistinct, the black below the eye is becoming evident, but only the tiniest hint of the white above the eye, while the breast is already showing its light colouring.

Note the beak progression too - especially the "egg tooth" (the white point at the end of its beak) which is quite pronounced on the youngest, is almost gone on the older nestling, and not evident at all on the adult.

As well as plumage, look for (and record) colour changes in gape, eyes, and beak, as they go through their transition from chick to adult.

e.g. The crow chick starts life with a bright red gape - as they grow, black areas appear, and by the time they are juveniles their gapes are half black and half pink. By the time they become adult, the gape is fully black.

As you will see on the Bird Gapes link, different birds have many different gape colours. The photos provided cover a small selection of birds which may help identify them.

Many birds go through an eye colour change too. Again, the crow chick starts life with blue eyes, changing to brown as they reach juvenile/sub-adult stage (up to 2 years), then the usually seen ice-blue/white of an adult crow. Currawongs, when young, have brown eyes, but these become bright yellow as adults.

Do take note of the area around the eyes too - many birds see changes in that area as they grow. e.g. the blue-faced Honeyeater has bare skin around their eyes that gradually changes colour as they mature.

Some birds have a beak colour change - e.g. lorikeets start life with a black beak, which gradually changes to the well-known orange/red.

Beak shapes can also give a clue to a bird's identity (see the page on Bird Beaks, and also see The Good, the Cute and the Ugly showing bird progressions from baby to adult).

Feet, legs, and claws
The picture showing different feet/claw shapes is available here ... (Bird Feet).

Size of feet and legs can give a big clue to the type of bird, even when quite young: e.g. A long leg could indicate a wading bird, or a ground-dweller. Wading birds often have long skinny legs, while ground dwellers often have a long, but more solid, leg.

As an aside, I received a call many years back where someone called to say they had found a "deformed baby crow" - it was deformed all right. . . As a chick, it had legs that appeared to be WAY too big for its body size (a tiny, all black, ball of fluff with HUGE legs and feet). We still have a chuckle many years later over its comical antics while in care. It was some weeks before the purple patch started appearing on its breast, and we were able to identify it as a purple swamp hen. It was later successfully released into swampland nearby.

As you can see from that, the legs/feet gave me a big clue that it definitely wasn't a Crow, thus it needed a different diet. It also shows that the public have even less chance of identifying young birds (it is hard enough for us at times...) Despite this, careful thought and observation can have us make good decisions most of the time.

Identifying by Sound
Over time, sounds can enable you to identify a bird, simply by hearing it through the telephone e.g. a finder has a bird, but doesn't know what species it is. Have them bring it near the phone and listen - it may be enough for you to identify its species, and even its age.

Some young birds are VERY distinctive e.g. a Dollarbird with its "machine-gun chatter", a young Lorikeet sounding "like a radio when off-station", a young kookaburra sounds like "trying to start a car with a near-flat battery"...

These are my interpretations - you may already have your own style of identifying them. Over time, your library of "known sounds" will grow, making remote identification easier.