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Little Brown Birds - Bare Identification Skills Needed

Updated on July 5, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

“What does LBB mean?” I asked in a bird forum once.

It’s an acronym for little brown birds. Mostly we are talking passerines, not water birds. They include all the non-descript females, sparrows and others that get put in the shade by their more colorful and showy feathered kin. LBBs are important, just not the attention getters. Yet, as one becomes more interested in bird identification, knowing your LBBs or at least knowing how to distinguish various groups of them, becomes more and more important.

When faced with an unfamiliar bird, the first thought is usually, what color is it. That's not very helpful when you are looking at a streaked brown bird. You need to go back to bare basics of identification. Yes, that means the bare bird. Disassociating a bird from its feathers is hard to do, but it will keep you from posting a picture of a yellow finch only to be gently corrected by others that you had a yellow warbler. In that case the quick identifier was the beak. Size also matters as well as body shape and who else the bird is with and where.

House Finch and his Mrs. LLB

Identifying by Association
Identifying by Association | Source

LBB ID by Association

This is the simplist down and dirty way to get a quick ID. If you see an LBB look around for companions. I caught one little LBB on the hook of my feeder one day. It was just a streaked brown bird, kind of blended into the fence when I first saw it. As I was catching shots of it (I do most all my bird watching with a camera in hand) in flies another bird as if saying, “me too, me too!” It was a he, and he was a house finch. The LBB was his Mrs. As birds of a feather flock together, observing an LBB’s companion makes a lot of sense. Knowing that LBBs are often females also makes watching for companion birds helpful as males are almost always easier to identify. Some of the most common LBB females you will identify fast by their companions are Finches, Bobolinks, Diskcissels, Thrushes, Blackbirds and Cowbirds.

Relative size differences in song birds. Captured from allaboutbirds.org
Relative size differences in song birds. Captured from allaboutbirds.org
Beak styles compared. Portion of a graphic from ingbuddy.com
Beak styles compared. Portion of a graphic from ingbuddy.com

LBB ID by Body Type

One method of dealing with LBBs I found comes from a Northern Woodlands article by Bryan Pfeiffer. In Little Brown Birds, he says to start with just noting the size, little brown bird or big brown bird. If it is large, it is not likely a sparrow. If it is small it could be a sparrow, but also a wren or finch. If it is bigger than a robin, you may be looking at a Cookoo. Not that big, then you may still be in the thrush and thrasher group. After that observation, consider the bird’s shape, beak type.

Bird Shape – Is the bird slim and elongated? You could be looking at a thrush. Is it compact, shaped like a football? Very likely you are looking at a sparrow.

Bird Beak – Beaks are very specialized identifiers. Is it cone shaped? You have a seed eater. Finches and sparrows fall into this group along with many others, but you have just halved the number of birds you might be looking at. Is the beak narrow and thin? This beak is made for catching insects. If it is heavy and longer than a finch bill, you may be looking at a bird with a more varied diet. If it is curved in some way, the choices are further narrowed down.

All these things will get you to a particular family of birds faster than trying to decipher spots and streaks on feathers first.


LBB ID by Behavior and Location

Behavior – The way a bird moves and holds itself will say a lot about what it is. Wrens hold their tails up high while sparrows generally keep their tails in-line to their bodies. A pipit walks, it doesn’t hop like shorter legged sparrows.

Voice – I admit this is an advanced birder skill, but we all have to start somewhere, so new birders should start picking up this identifying skill as they go. Pay attention to calls and songs starting with the most common birds you see. Some birds such as the American Crow and the Fish Crow are almost identical expect for their voices. Sometimes the birds chose to be closed mouthed, but that just gives us more time to observe while we wait for a chorus.

Habitat – Where you are will also identify a bird. Many birds are specialized to certain habitats. Bobolinks and Diskcissels like grassy fields. So do Pipits, but like Red-winged Blackbirds they will also prefer shorelines. Thrushes are woodland birds. Are you observing birds in an urban setting? I’m not talking about backyards, but park and parking lot birds here. In my area, the grackle fits this category and the lady grackle, unlike her mister, is an LBB. So are female Brewer’s and several other blackbird females.

Season - The time of year you find the bird in is also a habitat marker. Pipits only come to Texas in winter along with many sparrows and all longspurs. A Lark Sparrow, however, breeds here, so I would expect of find female Longspurs gathering nest material with some of my other grassland birds. Learning your birds by their seasonal appearances will allow you to anticipate arrivals and be on watch for first visitors.

Below is a table of some common LBBs and their identifiers. These birds were spotted in Texas so when I mention seasonal appearances, I'm only talking about appearances within Texas. Note that I don’t mention anything about feather markings. How a bird is dressed when dealing with LBBs should be the final part of identification, not the first. I’m still learning bird calls, so I have only added voice information for those I’m most familiar with. For recordings of bird calls to learn from, visit Cornell Lab Ornithology.

LLB Identification Gallery

Source
Source

Happy Birding.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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