Identify the Brown, Streaky, Juvenile Songbirds of Summer With These Tips

July 23, 2014
brown, streaky mystery bird Can you identify this mystery bird? Photo by by Flipkeat via Birdshare.
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In summer many young-of-the-year songbirds fledge from their nests. In seemingly no time at all, midsummer bird watchers are beset by a rush of bland, brownish birds in juvenal plumage.

But don’t despair—there are still plenty of clues to help you get where you’re going. In fact, using just three steps you can get through a process of elimination and arrive at an ID. Let’s take the streaky, brown creature in the above photo as an example:

1. What do we see?
Shape: fairly short, thick, stubby bill
Color pattern: blurry, indistinctly streaked breast, pale bold edges on wing coverts
Behavior: on the ground

2. To which group does this bird belong? One thing to keep in mind with juvenile songbirds—they have adult sized bones when they leave the nest. They may have shorter wings and tails than adults because their feathers are not fully grown, but you can rely on their bill shape and leg length being true to their species.

In this photo, sparrows and finches come to mind because of this bird’s streaks and stubby bill. Also, blackbirds have thick-based, sharply pointed bills and are often on the ground.

3. Which species? This bird’s hefty bill is too thick for a House or Purple Finch. It’s also longer-proportioned and larger than either of the finches.

Here’s the mystery bird compared with a House Finch (right) by Mark Moore.

Female and juvenile Red-winged Blackbirds are similar, but they have a longer, pointier bill and more clearly defined, darker streaks on the head.

Compare the mystery bird with the higher-contrast streaking of a female Red-winged Blackbird (right) by Anne Elliott.

On a Song Sparrow, there is more contrast between the streaks and the overall body color. On the mystery bird we notice streaks, but the entire breast and belly is streaked, uniform in color, and there’s no clear distinction where a streak starts or ends. The mystery bird’s streaked belly means we can cross many sparrows off the list of possibilities—and its hefty bill is even larger than a typical sparrow’s bill.

Here, the mystery bird shows far less contrast—and overall different shape—than a Song Sparrow (right) by Ryan Schain.

The head is fairly plain overall and the eyebrow blends right in, so we also cross off anything with a bold head pattern, such as juvenile Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

The mystery bird’s large bill is outdone by the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (right, by Kelly Colgan Azar), which also shows a prominent stripe over the eye.

What else is brown and streaky with a thick, short bill? As we mentioned, blackbirds are often found on the ground. They tend to have thick but long, sharply pointed bills. However, Brown-headed Cowbirds—members of the blackbird family—have a distinctive short, thick-based bill. Though the adults are uniformly brown (females) or blackish brown with a brown head (males), juveniles are heavily streaked—and indeed this is a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird.

For more help on identification:


  • Brian

    well written post Victoria – they are everywhere here in PA and their brood parasitism is just too creepy…

  • Laimiki Toonoo

    I have seen a bird similar to this mystery bird but it was about 2 1/2 to 3 inches long but the bill looked like a bill of a sand piper. It was a breed that I have never seen close to the arctic circle. A snow bunting was close to it but it did not look like that they were together.

  • Roger

    Your app and site does not show the Pintail Whyduh.
    I know it is an African species but lives in Southern California. Very interesting bird and drastic difference between make and female.

  • Rich Patrock

    I was surprised to NOT see a picture of the adult bird the author thought (or knew) the juvenile would grow into. The contrast in before and after is both striking and telling.

  • Hugh

    Hi Rich – good point! Here’s the All About Birds profile for Brown-headed Cowbird, with plenty of photos of adult males and females: Thanks for the suggestion. – Hugh

  • Sandra Hazen (sandee)

    Your bird was an American Pipit, sometimes called a Water Pipit.

  • Ruthann Zaroff

    I have gotten pretty good at identifying the wee offspring of our local adult birdies. Watching them beg for food and then be fed is pretty much telling. This summer (in southeast Michigan) we have watched hummingbirds, tufted titmouses, goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays, brown headed cowbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and a variety of wrens/sparrows rear their young right in our front window. That doesn’t include the “flyovers,” such as bald eagles, turkey vultures, sand hill cranes, red tailed hawks, great blue herons, and king fishers.

  • THANK you for this!! I live at Medicine Hat, Ab. and this is the first summer we’ve seen this little flock of birds following the horses around the pasture, roosting (and pooping!) on their backs, and hitchhiking, as many as 6 or 8 at a time! I’m from a ranch here, so am familiar with cowbirds, but we couldn’t see any adults…these must all be “kids”; obviously I didn’t know they looked like this. They must be having a really good year, (or the horses are infested with something that we can’t find.)

  • We always have cowbirds at the feeders on the back-porch, usually with a preponderance of males. This year we saw quite a few males and only one female, We have seen perhaps one juvenile in ten years. We actually have cows across the street but eating millet from a tray seems better than the alternatives at least to the males. Even an indigo bunting comes by on occasion and yesterday a wren came to check out whatever was going on (hummingbirds going nuts prior to heading south). Many years ago I had a course in ornithology from Charles Sibley who chafed at being located in the Ag School and was never known to be the least bit student friendly. Peter Paul Kellog was my pre=admission advisor and was really a great person with great advice (Be a generalist!). Richard Fischer was my advisor and a wonderful, wise person. I just finished a book on Buffalobird-woman (Maxidiwiac in Hidatsa) and the uses of plants by the Hidatsa of the Northern Plains. Needless to say Buffalobirds are what they were called before the cows took over.

  • e

    juvenile brown headed cowbird ?