Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: How To Misidentify A Bird

This may be a Curve-billed Thrasher, but we know how you can make it into a Bendire's. The verdict is in...identifying a bird does not need to reflect reality!

For years, The Human Birdwatcher Project ("birders are people too!") has been providing information on how birders can better themselves and avoid making common identification errors. We believe that this has left an impact...but it's not enough. Birds are still getting misidentified by the truckload. Maybe we've been going about it all wrong? Maybe some birders actually do not want to identify birds, they want to misidentify birds. So in the interest of serving the birding community and giving the people what they really want, we will supply you with a truly comprehensive list...that's right, the best misidentification practices to ensure that your identification skills will stay permanently stunted! Follow these tips and just watch yourself turn into an ace misidentifier of birds. Are you on eBird? Following these tips can get you banned! Are you a biologist who studies birds for a living? Kiss that job goodbye! Are you a beloved leader of local Audubon trips? Not anymore! Your once happy and fulfilling birding social life, filled with camaraderie and travelling adventures, will erode into a lonesome weekly dirge of going to the same mediocre places over and over again...misidentifying the same birds you see all the time as different rarities that you've never actually seen anywhere! After putting this list into play, you too can be a Magician of Misidentification, a Stormtrooper of Stringing, a Sultan of Sketchiness.

How is this possible? Well, read on!

Don't use a field guide. Use the internet instead! The internet has never been wrong about anything. Field guides have a lot of good information all condensed in one place. If you have any, throw them on the fire if you want to assure that your misidentification skills are kept razor-sharp.

Don't use a field guide that has been published or updated in the last 15 years. You want to be blinded from taxonomic changes and improved field marks. Golden Guide for life!

Don't learn about bird parts. What the hell is a scapular? How does a duck have a nail in its bill? Who would do such a thing to a poor duck anyway? Field guides and birders alike use a lot of lingo and jargon to describe different parts of bird anatomy, feather tracts, and types of markings. Avoiding learning about what these things mean is a great way to keep yourself in the dark about how to pick up on field marks.

If you avoid looking at range maps, you can successfully transform this Spotted Sandpiper into a Common Sandpiper.

Don't think about range or abundance. Are you in New Hampshire? Did that white bunting you just saw look like a McKay's Bunting? If you avoid learning the range of that bird, you could successfully avoid finding out that you probably saw a Snow Bunting.

In any given place in the country, most bird species are quite rare. There might be a couple hundred that are not, but then there about 9,800 that are. Do not take a bird's local abundance, or lack thereof, into account when identifying birds. That was not a flock of 30 Savannah Sparrows you saw yesterday, they were all Henslow's...knowing that Henslow's are actually very rare in your area could compromise your misidentification.

Don't think about seasonality. One does not find longspurs in California in June. If you are in California in June and you think you are looking at a longspur, it is best to not know this.

Don't consider similar species. You might say, "This bird looks like a Thayer's Gull". To that I would say, leave it at that! Don't delve into all the other gulls it could be and have to examine those pesky fieldmarks.

Don't think about habitat. Unfortunately, many bird species are found only in specific habitats, so if you do have a field guide (which should be ashes in the fireplace by now), don't ever read this section for any species, as it could sadly be quite educational.

Don't observe behavior. Was the bird pumping its tail? Was it on the ground or high up in a tree? These things are better left unnoticed.

Don't think about exotic species and "domestics". If someone questions your Fork-tailed Flycatcher observation and asks if it could have been a Pin-tailed Whydah, you tell them "that is not a real bird". If you see a giant brown goose 5 times the size of a Mallard that is too fat to fly out of the barnyard pond it's in, mark Pink-footed Goose off your checklist and move on.

Carolina Wrens are loud, with a very distinct song. You may be tempted to learn it, but that would be a mistake. Protip: Blare music from your phone whenever you feel like there is too much birdsong around.

Don't listen to bird vocalizations. Vocalizatons are very hard for inexperienced birders to wrap their heads around; even the best birders can be at a complete loss when identifying birds by sound if they are dropped into another state or country for the first time. So why bother? Give in to your confusion, your fears and do not pay attention to any boring noises the bird utters. Waste of time.

Don't use eBird. There are countless good birders out there who don't use eBird. That said, eBird is a fantastic tool for learning about what birds occur in a particular area. If you are an inexperienced birder and want to continue to make identification blunders, by all means continue ignoring the existence of eBird.

One field mark is good enough to clinch an identification. Don't closely examine the entire bird, just hone in on one field mark. I cannot stress how important this one is if you want to be constantly misidentifying birds.

Find your routine and never break it. Go to the same places over and over again, birding new areas as little as possible. Do not bird outside your county. This will assure that you have minimal exposure to different birds that you could inadvertently learn about.

Bird alone. Do not learn from others by any means! Also, you can keep making mistakes and no one will ever try and correct you. Brilliant.

Be completely dependent on your camera. Looking at a bird through a cluttered viewfinder and a hopelessly lost autofocus is absolutely what you want. Only ID birds from photos, no matter how bad they are and no matter how inaccurate the colors on the bird appear. For all those birds you don't photograph, it's like they never existed...right?

This is a Yellow-footed Gull. In the United States, 99.9% of birders will never see one away from the Salton Sea. This is a bird that is not only common away from there, they are not expected any place else in the country, period. Could you be part of that 0.1% to see them someplace else? Absolutely.

Presume it is not a common bird. Yup, you just happened to find the fist ever Pine Bunting in your state at your feeder. What luck! You are so lucky! No way it could be anything else, just go with it.

Presume it is a hybrid. You can read all about that right here, and if you want to learn more, additional resources are available in this post. It is really trendy to misidentify birds as hybrids right now, so come jump on the bandwagon!

You are never wrong about any identifications you make. Duh!

Get butthurt. Attack eBird reviewers who question your observations with great indignation and vitriol. Wage war on your state Bird Police when they reject your records. Not only should you never be wrong, let your emotions escalate and get carried away whenever someone disagrees with an ID you make. I recommend it highly! It's the bitter frosting on the cake of ineptitude.

Of course, if you want to move beyond being atrocious at identifying birds correctly and truly become a horrendous birder overall (the complete package!), the Human Birdwatcher Project has lots more advice to dole out. But you'll have to read the upcoming book to learn more, which is due out...

Nah, no book teaser, we've been providing this service for free for years now. Why? Because we at HBP care about's not about us, it's about you, the human birdwatchers. We care about the birders who like to identify birds, and the the birders who like to misidentify birds...ok we care more about identifying them correctly, but you should now be fully equipped to readily misidentify birds on a daily basis. Please share your findings with rare bird alerts, listservs, eBird and Facebook groups. People will be impressed with your superhuman abilities to find unusual birds, though someday you might have to face an intervention. If that happens...well come right back here, and we will set you straight.


  1. I'm laughing at myself, so I guess that's a good thing. Good job.

  2. Ha ha! Awesome guide :-) Should do one for wildflowers too :-)

    1. If I tried to write anything about identification related to plants, it really would lead to a lot of misidentification.

  3. Or join us at "The Facebook Bird Misidentification Page"! We are all self-certified experts who have taken the art of mis-id to a whole new level. In our group that plastic bag in the field you saw last June is most definately a Snowy Owl. Your only crime is a correct identification... The HummingHorse will then be dispatched to your home.

  4. Or... find a group of about a dozen respected birders who have ALREADY done the deed for you and misidentified a bird. Then just hop on board.

    God dammit, now I see why my blog title font looked familiar.

    1. The buteo bandwagon, yes!

      Yeah, that my font, you seen it here first.