Who are those guys? Lessons from the backyard bird count

The Great Backyard Bird Count was on last weekend, and I did my part, logging all the familiar birds that visit regularly. But there was one trickster in the mix, and it took me a while to figure out that this particular bird breed had fooled me once again.

On Sunday morning, I logged in to the eBird app to record whatever flew into our yard and I spotted on the ground below the main tube feeder what appeared to be an oversized sparrow. The bird was a drab gray for the most part, and I reached for my binoculars to get a better look.

The mystery bird below the feeder.

The beak appeared average in size and didn’t give me any hints, but the head had a slight wash of brown. That should have steered me toward enlightenment, but I was oblivious to what would ultimately seem obvious.

Mystery bird perching by the feeder.

The bird was busy munching the seeds that dropped from the feeder, and I had time to fetch my camera and zoom in. The bird flew up to the feeder for a time, and I soon had a decent assortment of shots that I’d bring up on my laptop.

Even with the images on the screen, I was buffaloed over the ID. I moved the three clearest shots into my Apple photos app and pulled them up in the Merlin app.

You could have knocked me over with a feather: it was a brown-headed cowbird, most likely a juvenile male. It gave me a bit of solace that Merlin listed the bird as uncommon for this area at this time of year, although I had spotted at least one amid a horde of grackles a few weeks ago.

As I mentioned, this was not the first time I was stumped by a cowbird. At our prior residence about two miles away, I was bedeviled for a couple of weeks by the inability to ID a female cowbird visiting the feeder. I don’t know how many variations of “gray bird that looks like a large sparrow” I typed into Google or how much time I spent in a bird book trying to find the proper ID.

Eventually I figured it out.

In an odd way that long process of frustrated and eventually fulfilled curiosity heightened my interest in birding. Needing to know the answer to “what bird is that?” is my own version of Butch Cassidy looking into the distance at his pursuers and asking aloud, “Who are those guys?”

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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