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David Sibley explains eye-rings

Bird eye-rings explained by David Allen Sibley
The illustration of a generic warbler’s head (top left) shows the actual feather outlines that make up a bird’s eye-ring. The sketches of Kentucky Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Orange-crowned Warbler show how variable eye-rings are. Art by David Allen Sibley

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A few minutes browsing any field guide will demonstrate the importance of the eye-ring for bird identification. It comes up again and again for species from sandpipers to sparrows. This is a relatively small and simple plumage marking, but it is disproportionately important.

One of the reasons eye-ring markings are so useful for identification is that the tiny feathers involved are essentially immobile, unlike the longer feathers of the neck or back, for example. The shape of the eye-ring never changes due to feather movement, so even very small differences in pattern must be the result of differences in coloration. In addition, because eye-ring pattern and face pattern are important visual signals to the birds, the markings tend to be consistent within a species.

Several concentric rings of tiny feathers form eye-rings, and the size and shape of an eye-ring is determined by how many of those feathers are pale. The narrowest possible eye-ring involves only the innermost ring of these tiny feathers (with the outer rings dark).

A broader eye-ring is created when the innermost and the second ring of feathers are both pale, and so on.

Many species show a broken eye-ring or eye-arcs, when the feathers at the front and back of the eye are dark, while feathers immediately above and below the eye are pale. All of these variations of eye-rings combine with other markings, such as a dark eye-line, pale lores, a pale eyebrow, and so forth, to form a unique pattern on the face of each species.


Paying close attention to the arrangement of these feathers will help you understand the variations in eye-ring markings, and make this important field mark even more useful.


This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

Originally Published
David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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