More about that bird (and readers’ wildlife photographs)

by Greg Mayer

The unidentified leucistic bird in the photos sent by my Wind Point correspondent have generated a lot of interesting discussion (as well as a heart-rending tale from one of our regular commenters). Most of the debate has been grackle vs. cowbird. When I first saw one of the pictures (the third of those I posted), I thought it was a crow, but zooming out showed it was much smaller. My correspondent had suggested cowbird, and that was my suspicion too, due to the brown ‘hood’. But as several readers pointed out, the bill is not conical and finch-like like a cowbirds. I should also say the native habitat is deciduous forest– sugar maple, basswood– with prairie/savanna not far off, but far from the more coniferous northern forests of Wisconsin, which makes something like a gray jay highly improbable on distributional grounds.

Several readers have commented on the enlargement and jpeg artifacts interfering with deciphering. I’ll ask my correspondent if he has the original files in a more lossless format, but in the meantime here are the pictures not enlarged, which may aid in identifying the bird. The size of the bird is easier to judge with more context, and, in the third picture, you can see that it was in company with a grackle. (My correspondent thought the other bird was a starling, but the light mark near the head is not its bill; IIRC, he had other photos that when we checked showed it was a grackle. The presence of the grackle might lean one toward the leucistic bird being a grackle, but icterids often occur in mixed species flocks.

IMG_6811

IMG_6814

IMG_6815

IMG_6816

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I’ll add some bird photos sent by three readers. From Stephen Barnard, who seems to see every U.S. bird in Idaho, we have a pair of American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), which are in fact known to breed in parts of the state:

This is a mated pair. The males grow a weird “horn” on their beaks during breeding season. These are very large birds and voracious fish eaters, so I chase them away from the creek whenever I see them.

Pelicans

And some photos from England by reader Mal Morrison:

A few photos taken over the last couple of days on Roborough Down, which is land between Plymouth and Dartmoor in Devon. The first couple is of a Linnet (Carduelis cannabina). The next is, I think, a Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra) although I’m open to correction not having seen one before. The last is a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) with its breakfast.

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And, in Diana MacPherson’s part of Canada, the male (but not the female) hummingbirds have arrived from the south:

Male Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) fluffs feathers as he guards his nectar

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26 Comments

  1. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I always thought the first photo of the leucistic bird showed that it had a rather conical beak, and that that should influence its identification. I do not know the smaller birds very well, so I have no idea what it might be.

    But I am ‘buggy’, and so I propose that the meadow pipit is carrying a bunch of stone flies.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 1, 2015 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      The meadow pipit is my favorite pic out of this batch. What a monster, from the bugs point of view. Nearly intolerably cute from mine.

  2. SRM
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    If that is indeed a grackle in pic, then the white bird is considerably larger than a grackle. That, and the heavy bill and head would likely make it either a smallish crow or a magpie.

    No way it a grackle itself as they are quite sleak about the head, and definitely not even close to a cowbird.

    • SRM
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      *sleek…also, since the bird has a dark bill, if it is a magpie it would be black-billed magpie, which has a large range, rather than the yellow-billed which has a narrower range. Note that magpies also have a black hood, which might be showing thru in the leucistic version.

      • Posted May 31, 2015 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

        This is Wisconsin. I grew up there and birded actively, and never once saw a magpie. So I think that would be very unlikely.

    • Posted May 31, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      I’m having trouble seeing how the dark bird in image 3 is much different in size from the mystery bird [mb]. Scale is a problem.

      I agree that grackles are generally more sleek than mb appears in the images, and that’s why I still considering Am. Robin. No way mb is either a crow or magpie — overall shape, including posture, is too far off.

      This illustrates how color and pattern are really important in bird ident. for us humans, and doubtless for birds too.

      • SRM
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        Yes, and general behaviour too, which one cannot get a sense of from picture.

        I think mb is larger because the blackbird is smaller despite being what appears to be a least a couple feet in foreground.

        American Robin wouldn’t have been a guess for me, but who knows. If we knew whether the bird was walking or hopping as it foraged through the grass, that would help.

        To me, the bird has a distinctly crow family-like head and bill. If only it shed a feather, DNA sequencing would solve the problem!

        • Posted May 31, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          My first impression was corvid too, but I can’t make that fit. I think a photo by Stephen Barnard would solve the problem.

          • geckzilla
            Posted May 31, 2015 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

            I also immediately thought corvid, but the only way I could find to make it fit was magpie due to the brown coloration. I tossed that suggestion in knowing that Wind Point is perhaps an unusual place for a magpie to be. Maybe the hood means nothing and it is a crow. Maybe it’s a magpie and we can blame climate change.

            • Posted May 31, 2015 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

              Magpies have much longer tails, dramatically longer than the mystery bird. The mb seems to have a fully intact tail, for whatever species it is, so it’s not that this one is shortened by damage.

              Crows have much shorter tails — the tail tip barely surpasses the wing tips.

              I conclude that the mb is neither a crow nor a magpie. If a corvid, I’d guess it’s some exotic jay.

  3. Chukar
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    If you download IMG_6815 and look at it closely, enlarging it up as you like, you should note the following:

    1). Robust bill: thick & long, but not especially pointed; bill length is at least 50% of width of head front-to-back. For an icterid, BH Cowbird has a short, conical bill. Other icterids, with exception of the BT & (especially) Great-tailed Grackles, have fairly thin & pointy bills.

    2). The tail (in none of the photos) does not have a vertical fold down the center (“keel-shaped”). All grackles have a ‘folded tail.”

    3. The tail extends well past the tips of the wings.

    3). There seems to be some lightness in or just behind the eye.

    4). Compared to the starling, the body seems bulkier. Relative length cannot be judged.

    Additionally, in my experience:
    5). When leucistic birds show a plumage pattern, it bears some resemblance to their typical plumage. It doesn’t change to something entirely different.

    6). Here in SoCal we get many species of escaped cage birds, and many show the result of selective breeding by humans.

    7). I already suggested on the original blog (out-of-range) Brown Jay and (escapee) Common Bulbul. Compared to the Starling, I think the former is too large and the latter too small, but size is difficult to judge due to body orientation and cut-off of the starling.

    Additionally: I am surprised that – on a site devoted to scientific matters – most of the commenters have supplied little-to-no support for their opinions. “It is a cowbird,” doesn’t help much. “I think it is a cowbird because…” is more useful.

    • SRM
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      the blackbird (which I also thought looked like a starling in pic) was apparently confirmed as a grackle from looking at other pics

    • geckzilla
      Posted May 31, 2015 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Feast your eyes on this leucistic magpie from photographer Lawrence Chard, of the UK.
      Brown & White Magpie 1093

      In another photo, he has this to say about the bird:
      “Leucistic variation of magpie.
      I was not sure what this was when I first spotted it, possibilities included some variety of jay or jackdaw. It appeared too short a flight distance to be a jay. The tail shape in at least one of the other photos points to it being a magpie.
      Researching this taught me a new word – leucistic.”

      Link to that other photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lawrence_chard/7067196535/in/photostream/

      It’s very similar to our Wind Point bird.

      • Chukar
        Posted May 31, 2015 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        If the dark ‘starling’ is actually a grackle, based on other photos, then I guess that yellow ‘bill’ is not actually the bill, but something in the grass, inconveniently located.

        And if it’s a grackle, then the leucistic bird becomes even larger, putting into or close to the Magpie range. The tail length & shape is more magpie than grackle, to my eye. The leucistic magpie from England certainly looks a lot like our bird, so I’ll add my vote to BB Magpie. (Yellow-billed Magpie is Calif. only.) At least BB Magpie is not well out-of-range in Wisc.

        • Posted June 4, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

          Yes, the “bill” is an unfortunately placed and colored bit of grass or other background material.

          GCM

      • Posted May 31, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        You could be on to something. I googled images of leucistic magpies and there are many that bear resemblance to the bird in question.

        This is a tough nut to crack!

        • Posted May 31, 2015 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

          I agree it’s tough. But, I’m sure it’s not a crow, magpie — or a cowbird. See prior comments for justification for my certainty on that.

          My previous best guesses (common grackle & Am. robin) are very much in question. Maybe, but no stronger.

          I don’t know what it is, though I known a lot of things it’s not.

          • Posted June 1, 2015 at 7:41 am | Permalink

            Yeah, on distributional grounds it should be a Robin or Common Grackle. There is not enough evidence to go with any of the exotic, out-of-range alternatives suggested by some.

            Chukar mentioned that grackles have folded tails, but this is not apparent in internet photos of female Common Grackles. Likewise, female grackles are not always sleek-headed. Google some female Common Grackle pictures.

            Grackle tails should be graduated, while robin tails should have more uniformly long feathers. I can’t tell which of the two this bird has, from the photos.

            • Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, I’ll have to stick with my original impression at the first post on this mb. It still looks like a grackle to me, given the shape and size of the beak, the slope of the ‘forehead’, the size and shape of the body and the longish tail.

              I did google leucistic American crows as well, and it’s wonderfully surprising the amount on variations in color and shading in all of these birds we’re pondered about.

              • Chukar
                Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

                Other differences of opinion aside, Black-billed Magpie is ‘rare’ in Wisc. Sightings farther afield have occurred in west Texas, Ohio and Nova Scotia. So it really falls more into category of ‘nice sighting’ rather than ‘exotic.’ In SoCal, many birders spend a lot of time finding birds more locally rare than BB Magpie in Wisc.

                Compare the length of tail extending past the wing tips. That’s a very long tail.

                Bulbuls – escaped cage birds – are of course exotic. A great many of the 130 species do not have crests, including the commonly-caged Common Bulbul, which I suggested.

                Some say ‘grackle.’ Which grackle? As the dark bird in IMG-6815 was ID’d as a ‘grackle’ – presumably Common Grackle (the only grackle expected in Wisc.) – and the leucistic bird looks much bulkier, perhaps you mean Great-tailed Grackle, whose normal range gets close to Wisc, whereas Boat-tailed does not.

    • Posted May 31, 2015 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      ” I already suggested … Brown Jay and (escapee) Common Bulbul.”

      I don’t know much about bulbuls, but most seem distinctly crested or at least “puffy” on the top of the head. The mb has a very flat top of the head. The bulbuls that seem to be regularly kept as cage birds (common and red-whiskered) have long distinctive crests. Also, all but one of the bulbul pictures (several species)I found in the web showed the birds perching in trees, not wandering around on the ground like the mb. Are they legal to keep in the US? I know red-whiskered in illegal in CA (fruit pest).

      I doubt that anyone is keeping brown jays (a permit would be impossible) and a leucistic one would add another layer of improbability. I’ve not seen one in a long time, but I remember them as rather large jays that hang out in subtropical thorn scrub (brush) not open grassy places.

      • Chukar
        Posted June 1, 2015 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        Brown Jay: So. Texas (Rio Grande Valley) is as far north as they usually get. However, when birds wander far afield, they often wind up in atypical habitats, so the fact of it being on the ground shouldn’t void the possibility. When a bird is 1500 miles out-of-range, don’t balk at it being on the ground rather than in a bush. Jays (in general) are opportunistic and inquisitive.

        One time, Looking for a Virginia’s Warbler in Newport Beach, CA, people said “It’s never past this spot on the trail, so don’t bother looking farther down.” Of course no one saw the bird until I wandered another 50 yards down the path where it wasn’t supposed to be. It was already a couple of hundred miles (at least) out-of-range – what’s another 50 yards?

        The fact that any particular species is illegal to capture or cage hasn’t much slowed down the illegal trade in birds. I can’t think of a bird species that someone, somewhere wouldn’t be happy to own, no matter how tiny, large, rare or difficult its food preferences.

  4. Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Been puzzling over the mystery bird so much that I didn’t comment on the others. I liked Stephen’s white pelicans, even if he doesn’t. 🙂 Here I just see them as migrants, mostly at the Salton Sea.

    Thanks especially to Mal Morrison for bringing pictures of birds I’ve never seen before, even though I’ve been to Europe twice.

    I was particularly interested in the linnet because that’s a word I’ve known since I was a kid. My father quite consistently called the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)a linnet. I don’t know where he learned that word or how he came to apply it as he did.

  5. Neil Faulkner
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    I see no Corn Bunting. Only male Linnet, female Linnet, and Meadow Pipit.

    • Mal
      Posted June 2, 2015 at 4:11 am | Permalink

      Yeah the second bird is a juvenile Linnet. I’ll take you word that it’s female.

  6. darrelle
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I’m sticking with grackle for the mystery bird. The pattern of dark hood and lighter wings, body & tail is very common for grackles. As best the wings and tail can be resolved in these images, after comparing to dozens of other much better images of grackles, I don’t see anything that doesn’t fit a grackle. Same for the beak shape and size.

    The over all size and bulkiness of the mb does not, as another commenter mentioned above, seem out of the ordinary to me for a grackle. Grackles are extremely common around me and grackles the size of smaller crows are not uncommon. I often mistake the two, but my daughter, who is much better than I at identifying birds, always points out my error.


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