Five fundamental feather groups determine the head pattern of nearly every songbird
Published: October 23, 2009
Crown stripes, eye-lines, whisker marks - head patterns are some of the most complex, and some of the most useful, plumage features on birds.
FEATHER FUNDAMENTALS: The basic feather groups outlined at upper left closely match not only the bold markings on the Savannah Sparrow (bottom left) but also the subtle pattern visible on the Dark-eyed Junco (right).
Art by David Allen Sibley
Identification of many species comes down to details of head pattern, so it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with them. This may sound daunting, but it's not. Head patterns are based on fundamental feather arrangements that are similar on all birds and nearly identical on all songbirds. If you learn the head pattern of a White-crowned Sparrow, House Sparrow, or other common species, you will be able to apply that knowledge to any other species.
As shown in the paintings at right, songbird head patterns almost always follow the contours of five feather groups that originate at the base of the bill and radiate back to the neck. The crown feathers cover the top of the head, and the throat feathers cover the bottom. In between, the feathers on each side of the head form three strips.
Below the crown and above the eye on each side are the eyebrows, or supercilia. (The singular form of the word is supercilium.) Because some or all of these feathers are often pale, they frequently contrast with the feathers above and below them, forming the eyebrow stripe shown by many species.
Below the eye and above the gape are the cheeks, an area that includes the lores, between the eye and the bill, and the auriculars, or ear coverts, behind the eye. Dark stripes are common along the upper or lower edges of the cheeks. They are called the eyestripe and the moustachial stripe, respectively.
Between the cheeks and the throat on each side, following the sides of the lower jaw, is a discrete strip of feathers often referred to as the malar, or submoustachial stripe. You could call it the lower jaw feathers. It often forms a pale stripe between the dark borders of the cheeks above and throat below.
Knowing the terminology is less important than knowing the structure, so feel free to use whatever terms you're comfortable with. The best way to learn is to watch birds at close range and see how the feathers fit together. Bird feeders provide a fantastic opportunity.
When juncos, sparrows, finches, jays, chickadees, or other common birds arrive in your yard, make time for some close and detailed study. Use your binoculars or even a telescope. Look for the subtle creases or differences in feather orientation that mark the edges of feather groups. Check out the sizes and shapes of feathers around the eyes and bill. Notice how the pale eyebrow, which is so prominent on a White-crowned or White-throated Sparrow, can also be detected on a Dark-eyed Junco. See how the shape of the base of the bill is related to the feather groups.
You will be improving your birding skills and enjoying the birds at your feeder all at the same time.
David Allen Sibley is the author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley's Birding Basics, and Sibley guides to birds of eastern and western North America.|
Read more by David Allen Sibley.