I look forward every week to hearing from readers with questions about a bird identification, attracting birds; or just wanting to let me know about the wildlife dramas they see in their own backyards.
Sometimes I even get questions about how to get rid of certain species that are wreaking havoc around the place! Over the years a few constants stand out for their frequency of landing in my email inbox. I’ll address a couple of those today.
I end up identifying a wide range of species from the photos that I receive; but one species above all others is the most frequent subject of identification requests. It’s a mid-sized perching bird with a dark brown-gray head and a lighter grayish body. Pretty nondescript, probably only noticed because it tends to like to live around humans.
It’s an Eastern phoebe; clearly the hands down winner of the mystery bird sweepstakes. Maybe you have seen one or two. Maybe you have even had a pair nest on a ledge under a deck or front porch. Watch one while perched and you should see it pump its tail up and down, another good aid to identification.
My next observation comes from the many lists of birds readers send me from their feeders. I notice that a large number of lists include purple finches as year-round feeder patrons. Not so. Those finches with the red bibs and reddish wash over the head along with a bright rose-red rump are house finches. They are with us 12 months out of the year. They might even nest in a hanging basket or on a porch ledge.
That doesn’t mean that purple finches are not coming to the feeders; they just won’t be around here at all from mid-April to late October. They are erratic in occurrence too, in some winters they don’t appear at all. House finches are pretty constant.
The confusion is understandable though. The two species are superficially similar and telling them apart can be a challenge for a casual birder. When seen together the differences are apparent. Purples are bulkier with a more complete purplish-red wash over the head, back, and belly. The above identification tips refer only to the males. Distinguishing the females could be a column all by itself.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.