‘Strange-looking’ songbird in yard may be a juvenile

This is the time of year when many folks start reporting “strange” birds in their yards and wanting help in identifying the mystery creatures. Some even think they may have a rare species never seen before in Georgia.

Typical is a recent call from a Decatur neighbor:

“I’ve never seen this bird in my yard before, and I can‘t find a picture of it in any of my bird books,” she said. She described it as a sparrow-sized, brownish speckled bird with bluish wing and tail feathers.

She noted that spring migration was over and fall migration had not started yet, so it was unlikely that the bird was a Northern-nesting species migrating through our area.

I had no doubt, though, that she was seeing a juvenile songbird, probably an Eastern bluebird, that had hatched out in spring. From July to September, our yards, woods, fields and other places are teeming with these young-of-the-year birds whose plumages are markedly different from their parents’.

I asked her to call Atlanta Audubon Society’s experts for a more definitive ID. Later, she called back to say that the Audubon folks had nailed it — it was indeed a juvenile bluebird.

After fledging, most songbirds typically molt quickly into their first full set of feathers. This is when they are considered to be in the juvenile stage. Juvenile plumage usually is more camouflaged — which makes the young birds less conspicuous to predators — than their parents’ vibrantly colored feathers.

For instance, an adult bluebird’s chest and back feathers sport bright blue and red hues. In juveniles, the intense colors are replaced by a mottled pattern. Juvenile head and body feathers also tend to be loose and fluffy. Wing and tail feathers look more “normal.”

Understandably, all of this makes bird identification a challenge this time of year. But don’t despair. Most songbirds retain their juvenile feathers only for a few weeks before growing new feathers more typical of their parents’.

So, come fall, the drab, strange-looking birds we’re seeing now will be more familiar to us as bluebirds, robins, warblers and other common species.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be new Wednesday. Mercury is low in the east just before dawn. Venus is very bright in the west at dusk and sets about two hours later. Jupiter is low in the west at dusk and sets a few hours later. Saturn is in the southeast just after dark.