A Bit of Bird-Watching Humility

What a racket!

It sounded like a squeaky-door orchestra playing in double-time staccato. I looked out the window, expecting to see a flock of agitated birds. But there were only two, and they seemed to be squabbling. One stood on our long-dead snag, the other on a nearby tree. They launched verbal tirades at each other, as though trading insults.

I did not recognize these birds.

I reached for Birds of Michigan. No luck. In the time it took me to flip through what I thought might be the relevant species, the noisy creatures moved on. Fortunately, I had hit ‘record’ before grabbing the book.

The video didn’t help me identify the birds, so I posted a short clip on Twitter and asked the birding community for help. In seconds, I had the answer. Feeling a little red-faced, I thanked the kind Canadian who told me what I should have known, had I only looked closely at the birds’ feet.

The birds’ juvenile plumage is dull compared to the adults they’ll grow into, which is what tricked me. I’ve seen the adult birds in our woods, but never with fledglings. But the young feet—two toes pointed forward, two backward—would have been a dead giveaway, had I thought to examine them.

Once I learned the birds’ identity, the squabbling made sense, too. Cornell University’s Birds of North America calls this bird’s vocal expressions an “unfathomed repertory of chirping, cackling, and raucous noises.” BNA also calls the bird pugnacious: It chases other birds away, and according to the species account, even the Pileated Woodpecker defers to this bird. That’s quite a statement, considering this bird is half the size of that big woodpecker.

If you’re a bird fan, you may have immediately recognized the bird in my photo. If you’re one of my Lake Allegan neighbors, you may have known these juveniles after seeing them with their parents at your feeders.  But if—like me—the birds’ ID has you guessing, take a look at the video. The squabbles are fun to watch, and there’s an ID reveal at the end.

Did you know this bird before the reveal?

4 thoughts on “A Bit of Bird-Watching Humility”

    1. Thank you, Ginni. After this experience, I’ll always remember to look at a bird’s feet when I’m trying to figure out who it is!

  1. Nope, I don’t know… But could you you confirm me something? I read somewhere, sometime, that the woodpeckers are “woodpecking” when they mate, like a seduction song (which would be in line with what you observed, those two answering each other), and not for drilling the wood and get worms or insects as I thought. Is that correct?

    1. Patrick, you are correct. Some woodpeckers –the Red-bellied Woodpecker, for example–do a ‘mutual tapping’ routine to show interest, and when choosing a nest site.

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