Whether you collect rocks or photograph wildflowers, it’s always more fun when you know what you are looking at. Similarly, one of the pleasures of birding is being able to identify the birds you are watching. A good field guide and a decent pair of binoculars work well for most of our birds. However, some species are similar to others, juvenile birds often look like they were adopted, females like to be drab (we’re talking birds here) and they all refuse to wear name tags.
Two of our most colorful birds are the Northern cardinal and the Pyrrhuloxia. We are quite fortunate to have either of these, let alone both of them, as year-round residents. Both are common to Mexico, but other than in southern Arizona, Cardinals are found only east of New Mexico and north of Texas. Pyrrhuloxias are much rarer, just barely ranging into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Differentiating between a Northern cardinal and a Pyrrhuloxia can be perplexing, since both birds have many similarities, and in fact belong to the same genus. Both have tall crests and red feathers, are the same size, weigh the same and have similar songs.
Adult Cardinal males are easy to identify (bright red overall with a black face and a tall red crest), but then it gets more challenging. Here are some tips to help you make the right choice: If the bill is large, thickly pointed and red or red-orange, it’s a Cardinal. If the bill is small, rounded, parrot-like and yellow, it’s a Pyrrhuloxia. If there is any black on the face, around the bill and into the eye, it’s a Cardinal. If the face is red around the bill and into the eye, it’s a Pyrrhuloxia. If gray is a predominate color, it’s likely to be a Pyrrhuloxia. If it’s a juvenile, focus on the bill size and shape (because both have similarly colored gray to black bills), but your best bet is to look around for nearby adults. Males and females often travel together as well, so look for easier to identify males if you’re having trouble with a female.
Northern mockingbirds and Curve-billed thrashers, both common to SaddleBrooke, present a different kind of identification problem. They don’t look much alike, but their songs are almost identical. The Thrasher usually sticks to his call, one or two sharp, high-pitched whistles, but when he decides to sing, he will perch on a cactus or wall and do a perfect imitation of a Mockingbird, who does a perfect imitation of all the other birds. If the bird takes flight, and you see a large white wing patch, it’s a Northern mockingbird. If it has a long and curved bill and a yellow eye, it’s a Curve-billed thrasher.
Probably the toughest differentiation of common SaddleBrooke birds is between the Cooper’s hawk and the Sharp-shinned hawk. The two species look virtually identical, with barred tails and streaked breasts (brown and white in juveniles, orange-brown and white in adults). Cooper’s hawks are larger, but small Cooper’s and large Sharp-shinned overlap. If you are seeing a small bird with a small head and a square tail, it’s likely to be a Sharp-shinned. If your bird is closer to 15 inches than 12 in length, with a large head and a rounded tail in flight, it’s a Cooper’s. If the bird is flying and the wing beats are stiff and shallow, it’s a Cooper’s. If the wing beats are deep and remind you of a flicking wrist, it’s a Sharp-shinned. Both of these hawks will come into your yard hunting other birds. The Cooper’s likes doves while the Sharp-shinned prefers finches. Finally, take a good look at the bird’s face. A Cooper’s hawk looks like he wants to kill something soon. A Sharp-shinned hawk tries to look like an innocent bystander, and wears a ‘Who me?’ expression.
(This article originally appeared in the August, 2009 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)