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Monday Morning Birding Basics – No. 7: The Harmony of Feathers

by Bryan on December 5th, 2010

A forester cannot properly describe a tree without terms like “crown” and “trunk.”  A hunter can boast of no white-tailed deer without discussing its “rack.” And no birdwatcher can describe how birds fly without mentioning their “wings.”

Birds are much more than wings, of course, so here’s a lesson on feather morphology, more precisely the terms you never bothered to learn from the introductory pages of your field guide.

No matter how different they may appear, all birds have descended from a common ancestor (bird are dinosaurs, by the way, but that is a topic for a future post). So the warbler and the woodpecker, the eagle and the egret all share a common architecture. There is a harmony in those feathers. Let them sing to you.

Consider the species pictured here: Painted Bunting, Herring Gull and Lark Sparrow. The gull, in its first-winter plumage, is a terrifying sight to many birdwatchers. That is because many do not know how to look at a gull, how to approach its identity. To the trained eye, the groups of feathers on this gull are as distinctive as those on the bunting.

The triangle of lemon-lime feathers behind the bunting’s head is the mantle (or upper back). The gull has a similar triangular patch of feathers behind its head, only smaller in this photo. They bleed into a separate patch of feathers on the shoulders, called scapulars, some of which have little black spades in them, extending along the gull’s back. Scapulars are big on gulls, literally, and important for identification of immature gulls.

That band of darker green feather across the bunting’s folded wing make up the greater wing coverts. Coverts are small feathers, often covering the base of larger feathers, such as wing or tail feathers. On the gull I’ve outlined the greater wing. Their appearance is helpful in the identification of many immature gulls.

In the Lark Sparrow, the median wing coverts are tipped in white. Rows of white-tipped wing coverts give rise to a field mark common to many birds, wing bars. Two wing bars most often arise from white tips to the median and greater wing coverts. That Lark Sparrow is also a model for markings on a bird’s head. I’ve labeled them accordingly.

My point is not that you to learn these terms right away. But recognize that these and other feather groups, shared among birds, are like road signs or pavement markings, places we turn, no matter where we are, to understand unfamiliar terrain, to get our bearings. It is one thing to note merely that a sparrow has light and dark stripes on its head. It is far better to note the dark eye-line and lores, the dark auriculars, the lateral chin stripe and pale malar, the rusty lateral crown stripes and the pale supercillium.

That kind of detail is your roadmap to the correct identification. Anything less would be like saying a tree has a bunch of green things at the top.

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