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How the appearance of birds can be deceiving

appearance
A Blue Jay turning its head. Notice how the shape of the black frame around the face changes in different head positions. Art by David Sibley

One of the challenges of understanding the color patterns of birds is that we only see the tips of their feathers, and feathers are flexible. This means that longer feathers on the body can move around a lot relative to their neighbors, and the color patterns formed by the tips of the feathers can change depending on where the feathers go.

We see this a lot in the streaked patterns on the breast and flanks of many species. These feathers are particularly long and flexible, and the dark streaks on the tips of the feathers end up forming irregular wavy lines rather than consistent neat and even streaks.

Shorter and stiffer feathers — for example, around the face and on the wings — move a lot less and form much more consistent and reliable patterns, which is one of the reasons we end up focusing on those feathers for identification.

Another aspect of this is that head feathers move with the head, while the “breast” feathers (which, in fact, grow from the front of the neck) mostly stay with the body. The upper breast feathers (from the upper part of the neck) do rotate a little when the head turns, but their length and flexibility tend to keep the tips of the feathers in line with the body feathers lower down, and feathers on the lower breast don’t rotate at all.

I saw this in action recently while watching a Blue Jay, and I made the sketches above to show the changes as the bird’s head turned. The dark frame around the face and throat of a Blue Jay is an unusual plumage pattern that includes fairly inflexible head feathers at the back of the cheek and quite flexible feathers across the breast.

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Notice how the dark frame behind the cheeks moves with the head and doesn’t change shape while the head turns, a narrow ring of feathers between head and body turns partially with the head, and most of the dark breastband stays in line with the body.

Watch for these differences in a bird’s appearance as feathers move. You’ll boost your understanding of feather patterns and your identification skills.

David Sibley explains variability in songbirds

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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), 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.

David Sibley on social media