Sometimes an easy bird can become difficult to identify.  Such was the case with the molting bird below, a species that has crossed my path hundreds of times.  It is an icterid, a family that includes blackbirds, grackles, orioles, cowbirds and meadowlarks, but beyond that I was temporarily stumped.  My birding partner for the day, Danny Melore, was similarly stumped.  We tried very hard to make it a Yellow-headed Blackbird but there was no chance of that happening.  Then we briefly considered an abberantly-plumaged Bobolink before the birds identity finally came to me like a light bulb being turned on.  Do you know what it is?

tricky icterid

tricky icterid

tricky icterid

tricky icterid in flight

Of course, it is a molting male Brown-headed Cowbird and an excellent example of how just knowing the colors of a bird’s plumage is not always enough to identify a bird.  The birds shape, size, bill structure, call notes, and behaviour can all be used to figure out a bird’s identity.  It is humbling to be stumped, even temporarily, by such a common bird but it served a good lesson: always think common before thinking rare!

This post has been contributed to Bird Photography Weekly #4 at Birdfreak.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.