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Nature in it's glory

Nature in it's glory

Nov 14, 2010

Silhouettes of birds: Head,bill and body shape


A bird's silhouette can tell you a lot about what kind of bird you are seeing, but there is more than one thing you need to pay attention to when you do.  In my first post on this subject, "Flight Silhouettes of birds: How to tell the difference," I compared the flight silhouette of an Eagle and a Raven to point out the differences in the shape of the tail and wings to help with identification.  However identification is much easier when two bird's are so large and dissimilar.  Identifying a bird's silhouette becomes more complicated when the bird is smaller in size and/or very similar to another species.  Nevertheless birds are much like people, in that they display a variety of very different physical characteristics.

The first thing you need to consider is the size and shape of the bird itself.  Many people know when comparing raptors that falcons are sleek and slim, whereas a buteo, such as the Red-Tailed hawk is broad and muscular, or husky.  This difference in body shape can also be noted in medium and small sized birds such as waterfowl and flycatchers.   Therefore, some birds are short and squat, or long and broad, while others are long and lean etc. 
Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow in flight
Take the Robin for instance.  As you can see below, when you see a Robin from the side you will notice that, while the Robin is long, he also displays a rounded curve from it's chest right to it's legs.  The Tree Swallow above on the other hand, is long and lean, assuming the shape of a cigar, especially in flight.  Robins, when seen head on in flight are much broader in the body as well.  Similarly there is a difference in shape between Mallard Ducks and the Ruddy Duck, with the Ruddy Duck being shorter in body length.  Both ducks however are broad through the body.


Ruddy Duck
Mallard Duck Male

 The shape of a bird's head is equally important.  Some birds have a predominant point or a bump on their head.   On some their  head appears almost flat on top, while others have a head with a distinct curve.  Notice the shape of the Ruddy duck's head compared to that of the Mallard.  There can also be a difference in the shape of the head of birds of a related species such as the Lesser and Greater Scaup.  Follow this link to see the difference in the shapes of their head: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesser_Scaup

Common Grackle

As you can see in the picture on the right, the head of the Common Grackle is quite flat on top.  Below it, the Pine Siskin's head is round and Say's Phoebe's head is almost triangular in shape.
Pine Siskin
Say's Phoebe

Another important element in bird identification is the length and shape of a bird's bill.  Fly catchers have long slim bills, while seed eaters have short triangular bills.  Similarly wood peckers also have long bills but theirs are thick and on some woodpeckers the bill is also slightly curved.  Sometimes the bill of a bird curves upward at the tip and sometimes it curves down sharply to a point.  On some birds the bill crosses over at the tip and sometimes the length of a bird's bill is rounded  like the top of a pipe.  And finally, the bill can also be rounded at the tip much like a spoon or long and thick, and shaped like a weapon.  Take a close look at the pictures below to see the differences in bill shape and size.

Northern Flicker
Northern Shoveler
White-winged Crossbill
Shore bird

There are of course other things to keep in mind when trying to identify a bird by it's silhouette which I will outline in another post in the future.  In the mean time I present you with a small puzzle.  At the top of this post is a bird's silhouette.  What type of bird do you think it is? Please feel free to share you thoughts in the comment section directly below this post.  I also want to remind you that the newest wildlife portrait is up on my wildlife portrait of the month page.  Just scroll down the page to see the latest image.



1 comment:

  1. Wow, I never thought of that, identifying birds by their silhouette, it's a good thing to keep in mind, thanks.