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David Sibley: How markings on feathers make spots and streaks on birds

Dark markings that reach the tip of each feather create the streaks seen on many birds, including sparrows. Art by David Sibley.

Birds’ incredible range of color patterns can be useful for identification, but the diversity can also be overwhelming.

The key to deciphering color patterns is understanding a few basic facts about feathers. First, they grow in organized rows, always out from the body and curving back toward the tail. Second, each feather overlaps the one behind it to form a smooth outer contour, like shingles. All we normally see on a bird are the tips of its feathers.

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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), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). 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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