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What birders should know about wing feathers

wing feathers
A fluffed-up Chipping Sparrow, with its greater coverts shaded blue. Art by David Sibley

Wing patterns might seem complicated at first glance, but the good news is that the arrangement of wing feathers on all kinds of birds is quite similar (and is nearly identical on all songbirds). So learning the feathers on one bird will unlock a trove of information about other species.

Among all of the feather groups birders talk about, the wing coverts are one of the most important. They are easily identified and often distinctively patterned, and once you’ve located them, they provide a reference point to understand other details of wing pattern and structure.

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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.

David Sibley on social media