BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Identity Theft

For some reason, I seem to have this compelling urge to write about duck identification. I wonder if it has anything to do with all those postings about Duck Stamps in recent months on the MOU's listserve. There must have been about 47 of them. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of Duck Stamps, and I know the money goes entirely to the worthwhile cause of wetlands preservation and acquisition. But from the number of internet postings you'd think this was the only way to contribute to conservation of birds and their habitats. (As for me, I'm waiting for someone to come out with Muck Stamps – a source of funding for the preservation of sewage ponds.)

Anyway, I realized there already was a Hindsight article on duck ID ( So that's out. But I'm running out of ideas, this Hindsight's deadline is fast approaching, and the guy has just arrived to look at a chronic water leak in the chimney in our house..... Hey, that's it! An article about Chimney Swifts: how to distinguish them from flying cigars, or from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, or.....

Well, maybe not. But it seems that Jim, the chimney guy, is the inspiration for a better idea. He was actually in my old bird identification class 25 years ago, and he has a question about the dark eagles he had seen feeding on dead fish on a half-frozen lake. Since Jim's a casual birder, I already know what he's going to ask. It's a common ID error I've seen before among the casual birding public and beginning birders who assume all Bald Eagles have white heads and mistake the all-brown immatures for Golden Eagles. In other words, our National Symbol is a frequent victim of identity theft!

With this in mind, I wonder what are some of the other most commonly misidentified birds in Minnesota. Something along this line was addressed formally in the April 2002 issue of Birding: "The Most Misidentified Birds in North America" (34:136-145). In this article, acknowledged bird identification experts Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley named what they considered the most common ID mistakes among birders. Their choices, generally arranged from the smallest to the biggest problem, involved:

• Orange-crowned and other drab fall warblers

• Winter loons

• Song Sparrow (due to subspecies variation)

• Chihuahuan / Common ravens

• Cassin's & Purple finches

• Clay-colored / Chipping / Brewer's sparrows

• Dark Buteos

• Thayer's Gull

• Jaegers

• Juvenile Tree Swallow

• Scaup

• Accipiters

• Western / Semipalmated / Least sandpipers

• Female hummingbirds

• Short-tailed / Sooty shearwaters

• Medium-sized terns

• Empidonax flycatchers

I know I don't concur with some of their choices. For example, while I know that it's very tough to separate Short-tailed from Sooty shearwaters, relatively few birding hours overall involve Pacific Ocean pelagic trips. And I agree that raven identification is too often a matter of guesswork, but the majority of birders don't bird where those two species overlap. The issue here is not so much to name the most difficult bird ID problems – we're already well aware about the challenges presented by Accipiters and other hawks, dowitchers and other shorebirds, immature gulls, Empidonax flycatchers, the so-called "Confusing Fall Warblers," sparrows, and others. But to fit the definition at hand, to become frequently misidentified, a bird generally has to be relatively widespread: i.e., before a species can be common ID problem, it has to be commonly encountered.

Also, in a curious way, such birds generally couldn't be considered too difficult to identify. That's because really challenging identifications probably aren't even attempted in the first place, especially by casual and beginning birders. I submit that the toughest problem birds encountered are often left as unidentified – I would submit as well that to call a bird "unidentified" is never a mistake. It's always preferable to labeling it incorrectly.

I suppose when trying to come up with such a list of candidates, you might first have to define the skill level of the birders who are out there making errors. After all, few experienced birders would see a dark-headed immature Bald Eagle and routinely assume it to be a Golden. But this "common rookie mistake" makes the final cut, since the number of casual and less experienced birders is vastly greater than the number of experts. Unfortunately, though, even alleged experts and other birders with lots of experience are not guilt-free here – they also are the ones making some of the most common mistakes.

It's worth noting that an aspect of this subject as it relates to the MOU's Records Committee (MOURC) was addressed six years ago in a two-part Hindsight article ( and It complied by bird groups and species the number of records that MOURC had most often judged as Not Accepted, an indication as to which birds presented the most identification or documentation difficulties. From 1974 through 2000, the bird groups with the most Not-Accepted records were probably about as one would expect:  

• Raptors (84 records)

• Gulls (59)

• Warblers (45)

• Shorebirds (21)

• Flycatchers (19)

• Sparrows (16)

As for the individual species, these were the birds with the most Not-Accepted records during the same time frame, and some of these entries are probably more surprising:  

• Swainson's Hawk (12 records)

• Mississippi Kite (11)

• House Finch (11)

• Black-headed Grosbeak (10)

• Ferruginous Hawk (9)

• Western Tanager (9)

• Ross's Goose (8)

• Osprey (8)

• Broad-winged Hawk (8)

• Gyrfalcon (8)

• Whooping Crane (8)

• California Gull (8)

• Iceland Gull (8)

• Clark's Grebe (7)

• Prairie Falcon (7)

• Laughing Gull (7)

• Yellow-throated Warbler (7)

But keep in mind that MOURC mostly considers Casual and Accidental species, so that Regular species (by definition, those seen – and thus misidentified – most often) are underrepresented in this breakdown. Note as well that some of the species on the list may now be Regular, but they were either Casual/Accidental when voted on (e.g., the now-ubiquitous House Finch did not become Regular until about 20 years ago) or birds reported out of season (e.g., Osprey, Swainson's and Broad-winged hawks). So, you'll find some of the species above included on my list below, but not all of them.       

Well, here's a list of 50 birds I'd say are the most common victims of identity theft in Minnesota. (By the way, Jim couldn't find the source of that chimney leak and left, nor were there any swifts in there to identify, but at least he found something out about immature Bald Eagles.) You'll see my selections are pretty subjective, and they're presented in checklist order, with no attempt to rank them by frequency of occurrence. Many have previously been mentioned in earlier Hindsight articles. Note that many of these errors don't work both ways: e.g., while immature Bald Eagles are frequently miscalled Golden Eagles, I think it's safe to say that Goldens are not nearly as often mistaken for Balds.  

• Domestic waterfowl. A variety of "barnyard" ducks and geese are often encountered in the field and puzzled over. I would guess the brown ones are often miscalled Greater White-fronted Geese, and the white ones get labeled as Snow Geese.

• Canada Goose. No one has come up with a way to tell the smallest Canadas from Cackling Geese, and the problem of smaller Canadas mistaken for Cacklings is bound to get worse if more splits are declared.  

• Swans. The difficulty of separating Tundras from Trumpeters, even by the experts, has been discussed in previous Hindsights (including the most recent one).

• Female/juvenile ducks. I've seen many experienced birders struggle with the females of just about any species. Three specific problems are: juvenile (and eclipse male) Mallards in summer (which resemble American Black Ducks); Mallard x black duck hybrids (miscalled as pure American Black Ducks); and swimming female Blue-winged Teal which often expose the green patch on their secondaries (and become mistaken for Green-winged Teal).

• Scaup. I confess I'm among the many birders who wonders more than I want to admit whether it's a Lesser or Greater.  

• Bufflehead. Males have a curious tendency among many birders to be initially misidentified as Hooded Mergansers (while, just as curiously, the converse is seldom true).  

• Common Goldeneye (heard-only). Courting males give a loud buzzing note, and I suspect this is the source of some erroneous reports of heard Common Nighthawks, especially in April. (The "peenting" of American Woodcocks can also result in similar confusion.)  

• Common Merganser. Distant swimming males look like Common Loons to many casual birders.

• Juvenile Ring-necked Pheasant. I suspect short-tailed young in summer are sometimes misidentified as Sharp-tailed Grouse or even Greater Prairie-Chickens.

• Ruffed Grouse. Especially when young are hidden nearby, adults frequently hold their ground, appear "tame", and are then assumed to be Spruce Grouse (a.k.a. Fool Hen).

• American White Pelican. Along with Snow Goose (another large white bird with black wing tips), I suspect that pelicans are sometimes reported as Whooping Cranes by casual observers.  

• Double-crested Cormorant. Like Common Mergansers, swimming cormorants often get confused with loons.  

• Great Blue Heron. I sometimes hear the casual birding public call these cranes.

• Immature Bald Eagle. Besides the Golden Eagle problem cited above, sub-adult Bald Eagles can be mistaken for Ospreys, since both have brown stripes on their whitish heads. (And it may be just as common for Ospreys, which may be unfamiliar to many novices, to be miscalled eagles.)  

• Accipiters. Not only are Sharp-shinneds easily mistaken for Cooper's (and vice-versa), but I think both (because of their banded tails) get mistaken for Broad-winged Hawks, especially in late fall through early spring.

• Red-tailed Hawk. Hawk ID has long been difficult for birders of all abilities, and the ubiquitous Red-tailed probably gets misidentified more than any other raptor: immatures have whitish wing panels or windows to suggest Red-shouldered and Ferruginous hawks, many have dark throats/sides of neck and are miscalled Swainson's, and most are whitish at their tail base like Rough-leggeds and Northern Harriers.

• Peregrine look-alikes. I suspect that every regular Minnesota species of diurnal raptor – even those which don't resemble Peregrines – has been called a Peregrine Falcon by someone at some point. Like Whooping Cranes, Peregrines get so much publicity that the non-birding public has them in mind when any unfamiliar raptor is seen. (Similarly, I suspect that Ivory-billed reports are up in the last couple years with all that woodpecker news from Arkansas!)  

• Yellowlegs. Like the scaup, I confess I'm among the many birders who wonders more than I want to admit whether it's a Lesser or Greater.

• Solitary Sandpiper. Because they frequently "teeter" and are spotted above, I often see birders mistake Solitary Sandpipers for Spotteds.

• Peeps. Probably the best example of the difficulties birders have with Semis, Leasts, Baird's, White-rumpeds, and Westerns is to consider the last species: in reality, there are only 5 accepted Minnesota records of this Accidental species, even though it was routinely – and erroneously – reported through the 1980s. (It is still listed in a 1996 MOU-published booklet as having occurred in 73 Minnesota counties, and Wisconsin birders still consider it a Regular species there!)     

• Stilt Sandpiper. Because they feed somewhat similarly to dowitchers and often associate with them, Stilts often fail to be detected among dowitcher groups and other shorebirds.  

• Dowitchers. I think I've already said enough about this problem in recent Hindsight articles: i.e., those who try to write about dowitchers make even more errors than the birders who try to identify them.  

• Immature Herring Gull. This common species is the source of frequent confusion among birders of all levels of experience. Many gull-watchers, unaware that third-year Herrings typically have bill rings, frequently assume them to be Ring-billed Gulls. And even birders who think they know gulls are unprepared when confronted with worn, abnormally pale Herrings Gulls and think they're seeing Thayer's, Iceland, or even Glaucous gulls.

• Forster's Tern. At most places in Minnesota, the Forster's is more commonly seen than other terns. If a birder is unaware of this and relies too much on a species' name, an erroneous Common Tern report is often the natural result.

• Juvenile owls (heard-only). The harsh food-begging cries of some young owls are unnerving enough to be attributed to Barn Owl, which many birders incorrectly assume can the only source of such nocturnal sounds.  

• Barred Owl. Especially during those winters with lots of Great Gray Owls, I suspect that some of the reports actually refer to Barred Owls. It's the same as the Whooping Crane/Peregrine Falcon situation mentioned above: Great Grays get so much publicity that non-birders assume that any big owl (like a Barred) must be a Great Gray by default.  

• Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (heard-only). I've often been with birders unfamiliar with the sapsucker's "mew" call who think they're hearing a Gray Catbird.     

• Downy and Hairy woodpeckers. These widespread birds are frequently seen – and frequently misidentified when their bill length and body size is hard to distinguish. (And I suspect that Downys are mistaken for Hairys more than the other way around.)

• Northern Flicker. Since they're brown and spotted and often feed robin-like on the ground, flickers appear unlike "normal" Minnesota woodpeckers and are quite confusing to many beginners.

• Eastern Phoebe. I never understood why field guides insist on portraying this species without wing bars. In reality, many phoebes have obvious wing bars and thus have a tendency to be mistaken for Eastern Wood-Pewees.

• Shrikes. Birders who are aware of the differences in the ranges and seasons of the two species probably make few ID errors, but otherwise they are so similar in appearance that confusion results (usually with Northerns mistaken for Loggerheads, rather than vice-versa).  

• Philadelphia Vireo (heard-only). The songs of this local species and the abundant Red-eyed Vireo are so similar (I still say they're indistinguishable!), that it's natural to assume that any such song would be coming from a Red-eyed. But a portion of these songs have to come from actual Philadelphias, and we have no idea what that number really is.     

• American Crow. Size is tough to tell without comparison, molting crows can show somewhat wedge-shaped tails, and some crows utter uncharacteristically guttural and raven-like calls. Consequently, I suspect that many Common Ravens reported from central Minnesota (and all of those from farther south) are really crows.

• Swallows. Kaufman's and Sibley's choice of juvenile Tree Swallow (it can look a lot like a Bank Swallow) was a good one, but I often see birders struggle with other swallows as well, since they're usually seen in flight and hard to clearly see.  

• Black-capped Chickadee (heard-only). The chickadee's "fee bee" song is commonly heard at all times of year (no, not just in spring, as some claim), and lots of beginners think they're hearing a phoebe or White-throated Sparrow.

• Thrushes. They usually seem to be lurking in the shadows and in heavy cover, making their subtle field marks and identities hard to determine.

• European Starling (heard-only). Just this one starling in my yard does a perfect Killdeer, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Meadowlark, and probably others. Think of all the other starlings elsewhere imitating other species, and they certainly must result in erroneous reports of many heard-only birds.    

• Tennessee Warbler. Compared to what they look like in spring, those bright green-and-yellow Tennessees in fall look so different and are so commonly seen that I often see birders struggle with their ID.    

• Connecticut Warbler look-alikes. Because the Connecticut Warbler is so highly sought, there is a natural tendency for wishful thinking among birders wanting to see one. I know the similarly plumaged Nashville Warbler, even though its behavior is quite different, is often mistaken for the secretive Connecticut, and Mournings, which are genuine skulkers, can have complete and Connecticut-like eye rings in fall.     

• Female/immature Cape May Warbler. Cape Mays in fall are often drab, quite variable in plumage, and more common than many birders think. Among the truly "Confusing Fall Warblers", this is one I especially notice that birders have problems with.     

• Pine Warbler look-alikes. Whenever I see Pine Warblers routinely listed as part of a warbler wave, I always wonder. They just don't hang out much with other migrants, and I suspect that a Bay-breasted or Blackpoll is what was really seen, though some Tennessees and Cape Mays might also have passed for Pine Warblers. (I've also heard of goldfinches at feeders in winter being confused with Pine Warblers.)

• Female/juvenile Common Yellowthroat. I often notice that these quite drab warblers frequently give birders pause. Admittedly, I can't say they tend to be confused with anything in particular, but the species is widespread, and thus commonly encountered, so that many ID errors seem inevitable.     

• American Tree Sparrow. Because this sparrow's breast spot is often just an indistinct gray smudge rather than the clean-cut black spot shown in the field guides, birders in winter easily confuse it with Chipping Sparrow. (And be aware that many Swamp Sparrows can show a dark breast spot, much like a tree sparrow.)  

• Vesper Sparrow. When its white outer tail feathers catch an eagerly optimistic birder's eye, there can be a tendency to think the bird is something more interesting, like a Sprague's Pipit or one of the longspurs.  

• Song Sparrow look-alikes. I am continually amazed that so many birders (and field guide authors!) think that only Song Sparrows have streaked underparts merging into a central breast spot. In reality, Vespers, Savannahs, Fox, and Lincoln's (among others) share this same pattern and thus become commonly mistaken for Song Sparrows.

• Female/juvenile Red-winged Blackbird. Arguably, this may be the most confusing ID problem of them all for beginners. If you tell them that the brown-streaked bird with a pale eye-stripe they're wondering about is a female Red-winged Blackbird, they may refuse to believe it.

• Meadowlarks. There's probably no problem if it's singing, or if you're safely beyond the Eastern Meadowlark's Minnesota range (Westerns are nearly statewide). But otherwise, be prepared to make mistakes.  

• Female/juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. Those nondescript, faintly streaked grayish birds not only confuse beginners, but they can even prove confusing to more advanced birders who know about female Red-wingeds.  

• Blackbirds. Red-wingeds and cowbirds aside, other blackbirds cause frequent difficulties. The main problem is that Rusty Blackbirds (mostly in spring) and Common Grackles (mostly females and in winter) are mistaken for Brewer's Blackbirds. Though frequently reported, Brewer's are not as widespread in Minnesota as many birders think.  

• Redpolls. Routine reports of Hoary Redpolls are always suspicious, since it's very easy – and tempting – to mistake a marginally pale Common Redpoll for the more highly sought Hoary.

*          *          *

I would assume that many readers would disagree with some of these choices and have other nominees in mind. If so, let's hear them. Also, let's keep in mind that this essay is not intended to be critical of those who make these common mistakes. The intent here is to help birders of all abilities to be aware of and thus avoid – or at least understand – those difficulties others often have.