Baby bird identification can be quite a challenge. As birds grow, they go through a myriad of changes, from feathers, colour and markings in the duration of a few days to a few weeks.
When finding a baby bird you will get confused as to what bird species it is, a mistake even experienced birders make.
Birding is all about knowing what it is you are looking for, both for baby birds and adult birds, but today we are diving deeper into the world of cute little baby birds.
Baby Bird Identification – What to Identify First?
As you try to identify that baby bird, there is one thing that you need to ask yourself; which stage of development is the baby bird in?
This is important as it will help alleviate some of the confusion that will come from mislabelling the bird.
The most used term when describing baby birds is the word chick, which is a blanket term for baby birds from when they hatch to when they leave the nests.
Here are a few terms, you should get to know so that you can be able to identify chicks quite well.
1. A Hatchling
This term refers to recently hatched birds that do not have a lot of down or the ability to look after themselves.
Hatchlings need constant parental care as they would quickly die without it. It is also important to note that there are two types of hatchlings;
- Altricial birds:
These are birds that hatch out with their eyes closed, are relatively motionless, are unable to look after themselves, and are usually naked.
Examples include owls, swallows, pigeons, sparrows, and most garden birds.
- Precocial birds:
These are birds that hatch with their eyes wide open, are covered in downy feathering, become mobile in only a short while, and can find their own food.
Examples include chickens, geese, ducks, and many types of wading birds.
2. A Nestling
This is a chick that is covered in fluffy down and is several days old. These chicks are usually active and quite demanding of their parents but are still not able to survive on their own.
Some birds will also have a mix of pin feathers ( these are feathers that are still covered in a keratin sheath), a few patches of bare skin and fully developed feathers.
3. A Fledgling
These are young birds that have developed most of their flight feathers and are nearly ready to leave the nest.
Although they are usually well-feathered, they are not yet ready to fly. At this stage, they are mobile and will spend several days on the ground gradually strengthening their flight muscles.
Though there are exceptions to this such as swallows and swifts, which are able to fly immediately after they leave the nest.
4. A Juvenile
These are young birds that have outgrown the awkward chick phase and now look more like adult birds. Even though they look like adult birds, they still have the camouflage plumage of their youth.
5. A Sub-Adult
These are birds that have completely left the nest and are looking after themselves but are not yet sexually mature and lack all the distinct markings of mature adults.
Larger species of birds take longer to mature such as flamingos, eagles and gulls, with birds staying in the sub-adult stage for several years.
These sub-adult birds can be confusing to many birders as they try to identify them.
Characteristics To Look For When Identifying A Baby Bird
As you view that juvenile bird through your binoculars, the first thing you should ask yourself is; is it really a juvenile bird you are viewing and trying to identify or is it an adult?
These juvenile birds can confuse even the most experienced birders, as some will look like other bird species, while others closely resemble their adults.
Below are some key characteristics that you need to look out for, to be sure you are indeed looking at a baby bird.
1. The Colour of the bird
Most juvenile birds spot drab and dull plumage that is usually similar to that of female adult birds.
At this stage of their lives, they cannot fly and are vulnerable to a host of predators, so they have drubbed grey, or brown-colored plumage to camouflage them better.
Adult birds on the other hand will spot vibrant feathers on all or part of the body.
2. The Feather Length
Even though they have feathers, chicks are still not able to fly and will have shorter and stubbier flight and tail feathers when compared to adult birds.
Other feathers such as on the abdomen, flank, and breast will look less organized and fluffier when compared to adults.
This is due to the fact that they are still underdeveloped and have not learned to preen themselves as effectively as adult birds.
3. The Bill size
The bill will usually be larger and out of proportion with the rest of the head. This is usually because the head is not fully formed and essentially the head has to catch up to the big bill.
4. Gape Flanges
Gape flanges are soft, fleshy tissue that is usually yellow or white and appears prominently on the side of the beaks of some bird species.
They look like lips and act as a sort of beacon for the parents on where to put the food during feeding time.
As the birds mature, the coloring on the gape flanges will disappear, thus only juvenile birds will have these beak colorings.
The gape is important with studies showing that different birds are able to identify their offspring through the coloring of the gape flanges.
Also, baby birds with the most vibrant gape flanges, advertise their health and fitness, leading to parents giving them extra food; only the strongest and fittest survive, or get preferential treatment during feeding.
5. Behavior of baby birds.
Baby birds need a lot of nutrition to ensure their growth, and will sometimes be fed several times a day by their parents.
Most of their behavior at this stage of their life is tuned towards getting their parents to notice them, particularly during feeding time.
They will beg for food, and flutter their wings especially when an adult is nearby.
They will also chirp continuously in order to alert their parents to their location.
Adult birds do vocalize, but not as constantly as fledglings so as not to attract predators.
But behavior in itself is not a determiner of whether a bird is an adult or a juvenile because many adult birds display similar behaviors during courtship.
6. The Eye size
Nestlings and fledglings usually have eyes that appear too big for their heads. As the bird matures and the head grows bigger, this feature grows less noticeable.
3. Crucial Keys To Baby Bird Identification
Now that you are pretty sure it is a baby bird you have spotted, then the next step is identifying the bird species using these three keys as pointers.
Most juvenile birds usually resemble adult female birds quite remarkably though they will be smaller in size.
Young birds will not have the field markings and colorful plumage of adult birds, but there should be some similarities to the adult birds.
But as the bird matures, it will increasingly resemble its parents, with the feather coloring and field markings becoming more distinct.
The other thing to consider is the geography of where the baby bird is located. Is the area a known breeding or nesting site of a common regional bird or migratory bird?
Is the area known for visiting birds or is it full of resident bird species, is the area a wet area or is it a savannah?
All these geographic features and factors will also determine the bird species you are trying to identify.
3. The Community
The third thing to look at is the community surrounding the baby bird. Young birds usually rely on their parents, sometimes exclusively and partially for their survival, so an adult is always nearby.
But there usually are brood parasites such as the cuckoo bird that replaces a host’s eggs with its own, after which the host will take care of the parasite chick after it hatches.
Such chicks are usually different enough from their parents that you can easily tell they are not the same species.
What To Do If You Find A Juvenile Bird?
Birding is a wholesome activity that starts right outside your doorstep to the vast Savannahs of Africa.
And as is the case, you’ll view many juvenile birds in your locality as you birdwatch from the comfort of your home or vehicle.
Sometimes you’ll come across young birds that are not in their nests, and that will look helpless, don’t be too compassionate and start codling it, instead here are a few steps you need to take.
1. Observe the bird
Just hold on to your busy helpful self and observe the baby bird for a while. Watch if it can take care of itself, or if there are parents nearby.
Since, most times you see a baby bird, you’ll fail to see the parent standing nearby keeping a watchful eye.
2. Intervene in as little as possible.
Just try not to intervene, as these birds do find their way back to their nests or their parents will find them. If you determine the baby bird is too young to be out of its nest then you can intervene and take it to its nest.
If you can’t find a nest then fashion one from a very small basket, then line it with tissue or grass clippings and put it securely on the nearest tree to where you found the baby bird.
The baby bird will make enough noise that, sure enough, the parents will find it.
3. Do not give the baby bird food or water.
Just like human toddlers that are usually reliant on the mother’s milk for nutrition, these baby birds are reliant on their parents for their nutritional needs.
This may seem quite harsh, but keep in mind, that these baby birds have strict dietary needs that can’t be met by what you have at hand.
Offering them the wrong foods will lead to malnourishment or choking hazards.
Books And Tools to help identify baby birds.
Now that you’ve seen that baby bird and are still having a hard time identifying it, there are many resources that will help you identify the bird species.
The list below will help you get started on a library of baby birds and how to identify them.
1. With a Little Help Of Books
This blog post contains affiliate images and links from Amazon, no extra charges for you.
To identify little baby birds, there is the traditional way with the help of books 🙂 A few that I would recommend and will get reviewed later on this website:
- 1. A Guide to Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Baicich and Harrison.
- 2. Baby Bird Identification: A North American Guide by Linda Tuttle-Adams.
- 3. Peterson Field Guide To North American Bird Nests.
2. Helpful Websites for baby bird identification.
- Vetspace: tries to help you to identify baby birds by showing you a whole bunch of pictures of juvenile birds
- Eastvalleywildlife: has a large baby bird gallery
- RSPB bird identifier: Asks you questions on specifics of birds and helps you identify birds in the UK.
3. Bird Apps
There are quite a few e-bird apps recognition devices on the market, ao:
- eBird mobile app.
- Audubon bird guide.
- BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide, etc..
Reviews on all of these will also follow later on my website, keep posted!
FAQS On Baby Birds.
In this final section, we will answer a few faqs on baby birds for you.
What do you feed baby birds?
Baby birds require a lot of energy as they are continuously growing and for movement. Baby birds will eat vegetables, fruits, and a lot of insects.
You can also supplement their diet with bird seeds in small amounts.
Is milk good for baby birds?
Birds are not mammals, and as such their digestive system cannot handle it. To baby birds, milk can be toxic, so avoid it entirely.
How often do you feed a baby bird?
Depending on their stage of development from hatchling to fledgling, then the younger the bird the more times it has to be fed.
Why do baby birds open their mouths?
Baby birds open their mouths as wide as they can when hungry. This exposes the colorful inner mouth, the gape, which causes the parent to put food into its mouth.
My Final Conclusion.
I hope that you found this article on baby bird identification useful, but if you have any more questions, please feel free to ask them down below in the comment section or join me on my social media channels or Facebook group.
I wish you happy birding and happy travels!
6 thoughts on “Baby Bird Identification – The Ultimate Guide”
That’s a really helpful article. I found a bird’s nest last summer in the tree right in front of my window, the babies looked healthy and their parents flew in regularly, if I get another one this summer and something’s wrong, I’ll be able to do something about it thanks to you!
Also the links a the bottom will be very useful as a reference!
Thank you so much for your wonderful comment and I hope that you will recognize the little birds when they are nesting again!
hey thanks for this post!
It was certainly interesting to read through this guide since I am a massive animal lover! I enjoy watching birds that have a visit in my garden or anywhere near, they are just so adorable!
I myself often look at bird guides to help identify species I am not familiar with. I am also quite good at identifying the age stage they are too with some common species however this post has certainly gave me a bit moor knowledge on identifying creatures far out such as in zoos. So the next time I do visit a vicinity where there are a range of species, I will have this guide open!
Have a great day!
thank you so much for all these compliments and I wish you lots of future fun with birdwatching!
It’s amazing to learn about newborn birds’ developmental phases, from hatchlings to fledglings to juveniles and beyond. When identifying a baby bird, it is important to remember these stages, as mislabelling might cause difficulty. The color of their plumage, length of their feathers, size of their beak, presence of gape flanges, and behavior can all indicate their age and maturity level. Understanding the various stages of development in baby birds can significantly improve the experience of birdwatching, which can be a challenging but rewarding hobby.
Thank you for this article; I enjoy it immensely.
Thank you a lot for this comment Miki, much appreciated!
I wish you happy birding!