Seeing spots

With the breeding season in full swing, young birds can often be spotted in our gardens and countryside, often accompanied by their parents – though you may not always be able to tell.

Many British birds, such as robins and blackbirds, are multi-brooded: they will have more than one nesting attempt in a breeding season and, by mid-summer, will have said goodbye to the young from the first brood and be busy with the second. This is when there are lots of young birds around that look very different from their parents, making them hard to identify. Even though several species can appear quite similar, there are key identifiers that will help tell them apart.

The robin is one of our best-known birds and, in adult dress, one of the easiest to recognise. However, a young robin looks very different indeed, being brown and pale-spotted all over, with only the wings and tail being plain. The large, dark eye, long legs and upright stance give the game away, though, and a closer look will reveal its true identity.

©Jill Pakenham/BTO

Young blackbirds are a variation on the theme, being brown and spotted, too – sometimes so much so that they can be mistaken for the song thrush. Young blackbirds, however, always have dark legs, while those of a song thrush are a paler pink.

Young spotted flycatchers, a bird that can be found nesting in our parks and gardens, can look surprisingly robin-like but, like young blackbirds, will always have dark blackish legs that are much shorter than the long, pink legs of a robin. The belly of the flycatcher has a whitish background colour, too – very different to the ginger colour of the young robin.

© Tommy Holden/BTO

Young green woodpeckers are strikingly spotted. From the red spotted crown and green and yellow spotted back to the dark and white spotted underparts, the overall effect can look reptilian, exacerbated a little by being zygodactylous, that is, having two forward- and two backward-pointing toes. Young green woodpeckers still show the distinctive woodpecker shape – with a large chisel-like beak and short tail – and will also be seen searching for ants on the ground, just like the adult birds.

©Jill Pakenham/BTO

Unlike most teenagers (!), not all young birds are spotty. Young blue and great tits look largely like their parents, but can be identified as youngsters by their yellow cheeks. Young ducks and geese employ a mostly yellow and brown patch effect that, like the spotting seen in some young birds, is very good for camouflaging a young duckling or gosling in waterside vegetation.

Young corvids – crows, jackdaws, ravens and rooks – are often almost indistinguishable from their parents, with the only clue to their immaturity being the yellow gape line at the base of the beak, which in itself is an almost universal sign of being a youngster in the bird world.

So, why do lots of our young birds have a very different look to their parents? The first few weeks of a young bird’s life are when it is at its most vulnerable: for some, the mortality rate is around 80%, and having a degree of camouflage when hiding can, in some instances, make all the difference.

So, when confronted with what looks like a young bird, wait and see if a parent arrives, to be absolutely sure what species you are looking at. Or take clues from the size and shape of the individual and the colour of the legs. You might not always come up with an answer, but it is fun to try. 

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