Photo Quiz 2: Funky Birds With Bright Markings

By Hugh Powell
November 6, 2009
photo bird quiz funky birds bright markings Photo Quiz 2: Funky Birds With Bright Markings. Photos by Birdshare contributors Stephen Parsons and Greg Page.
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We got such an enthusiastic response to our first photo quiz that we’ve decided to launch another one. This one’s certainly not a tricky-ID problem—few people would look at these two photos and see two closely related species requiring keen attention to detail to separate.

And yet, they aren’t your everyday species and, despite their bold markings, they can be somewhat hard to locate when flipping through a field guide. I only noticed their overall similarities as I was assembling our November featured photographer portfolio, for Matt Shellenberg (spoiler alert: other photos of these two species are identified there).

Wait a minute, I said to myself, these are two strongly marked brown, yellow, gray, and black birds with big beaks. Identifying them is pretty straightforward—but why? What is your brain doing to separate these two birds from each other and from everything else? What advice would you give to a beginner to nudge them toward the right part of the field guide? As I said last week, we’re thinking a lot about the process of bird ID right now, and we’d love to know how you get to your answers.

Not only that, but they’re two cool birds, aren’t they? Here’s a closer look.

Exhibit A:


Exhibit B:


Thanks in advance for your answers. We’ll post a roundup in a few days.

(This photo quiz is powered by Birdshare contributors Stephen Parsons, Greg Page, and Kaustubh Deshpande. [spoiler alert! the birds are identified on those pages too])


  • Becci

    The first one is a sora, I think. Not sure about the second guy, though–some kind of a finch, or a grosbeak??

  • The first bird is an adult Sora and the second is an adult male Dickcissel. Both birds are in breeding plumage and some nice photos. Nice connection with these two birds, Hugh. I wouldn’t have brought these two together in a quiz.

  • Hugh

    Interesting answers so far… keep them coming! Remember we’re as interested in what you notice to identify the birds as in what the birds are. Thanks! – Hugh

  • Sarah

    A: Sora

    B: Dickcissel.

    I would look at the shape of the birds first:

    A: Rail, Chicken?

    B: finch

    Then the beak

    A: Short for a rail

    B: Big finch beak

    (Crossing out goldfinch)

    Then browse the guide slowly.

  • lesley

    Im just learning so i always look at size and shape then go for size/colour of the beak to narrow it down, then where ive see it (habitat)

    1st bird – Sora which is a small rail i think, has dark grey/brown upperparts with black/white streaks, grey breast, grey head dark crown/nape with black face, yellow bill/dark tip

    2nd bird – Dickcissel

    A breeding male? similar size as finch and beak similar shape to a bullfinch..i think

  • I was listening to the podcast of Alvaro Jaramillo’s talk from the Midwest Birding Symposium. One of his points is that birders don’t really identify the birds they see – they recognize them. It was that way when I saw these photos. My first thought was “those are really nice pictures of a Sora and Dickcissel”. I didn’t key in on specific field marks.

    But if I had to step back and try to explain how someone could figure it out if they didn’t recognize them…

    Sora – the bill and feet jump out at you. Those, combined with the vegetation, suggest some kind of marsh bird. And as Sarah already said, the overall shape indicates something like a rail or chicken. That should be enough to get you to the right place in the field guide.

    Dickcissel – the overall shape is pretty obviously a songbird. That gets you to the right half of the field guide, and that big honker of a bill should get you to the back portion of the guide with the sparrows and finches. From there, the coloration would be obvious, since there’s nothing else close (well, meadowlarks are similar in plumage, but the shape is entirely wrong).

    I’d say that the best way to learn to identify birds is to really study them, both in the field guides and in the field. That sounds pretty obvious, but going back to the Sora – you may not remember seeing a picture of a Sora, but if you’ve studied enough to have a general idea of what a rail is, then identifying that Sora would be much easier.

  • Michael Corcoran

    Thanks again Hugh!

    I think we have arrived at the right answers (Sora/Dickcissel) but, how did we get there? Color is obviously helpful, sometimes essiential but, it is the last step in the process.

    In Exhibit A, I see a stout chicken-like bird with riciulously long toes, almost no neck, and a short bill among the reeds in marsh.

    Without considering color, habitat, structure and function have narrowed the field to one of two or three Rails. Color, The bright yellow bill and legs and the black throat make it a Sora.

    In Exhibit B, color played a much bigger role in narrowing things down but, lets see how far we get. I see a small to medium sized bird with a real honker of a bill, perched on a seed head in grassland or meadow. Bill shape tells me it is definately a seed-eater, it could be a sparrow but, more likely a finch. Finally, we get to the yellow breast and eye stripe, the black bib and the rusty shoulder that make it a Dickcissel.

  • Becci

    @ Grant McCreary: “One of his points is that birders don’t really identify the birds they see – they recognize them. It was that way when I saw these photos.”

    That’s exactly what happened with me when I saw the sora. I just know one when I see it, probably because I live near water and I’ve seen Virginia rails before, so I have a general idea of what these kinds of birds look like. For the dickcissel, I was obviously looking at the beak. I’m not so good at songbirds yet, though, and we don’t have dickcissels anywhere near here–I thought it looked similar to an evening grosbeak, but not the same. I’m actually really relieved that I wasn’t HUGELY far off.

  • I would guess the following steps are involved when I identify birds:

    1) overall size

    2) proportions, especially length of neck and feet or bill size if obvious in one way or the other – ony flying birds: relative size and shape of wings and tail

    3) shape and relative size of bill

    4) by combining these three, I would guess I am usually at group level, e.g. raptor, duck, heron, shorebird, songbird and then I consult the field guide.

    In the case of Sora versus Dickcissel, the separation would thus go along the following lines:

    1) Sora appears rather large whereas Dickcissel is a small bird (this is their appearance, althoug measurements may overlap. A Least Sandpiper will always “feel” larger than say a Chickadee or a sparrow even though this may not really be the case).

    2) Dickcissel has no real neck and a long tail while Sora has a long neck and no real tail, so here’s a strong difference in proportions.

    3) Dickcissel has a short and strong bill while the Sora’s bill is long and slender.

    Of course by these field marks, I might search for the Sora amongst the Calidris sandpipers and scan the sparrows for the Dickcissel, but that’s to be resolved by going through the pages of your field guide.

    I hope that was of help, cheers,


  • Hmmm, of course I meant “legs” and not “feet”.

  • Hugh

    Thanks to everyone for some great responses. You’ve all zeroed in on the correct IDs, and it’s really interesting to see what got you there. There’s a good consensus that size/shape and then beak size are fundamental places to start. It implies, too, that there’s some beginning work to be done in learning to relate sizes and shapes to the general group a bird is in.

    Grant, Michael, and Jochen all had nicely detailed explanations of what makes their brains almost instantly register these IDs. What’s interesting is that at the heart of these split-second IDs are details that don’t even involve the bird. Just the sight of dead cattail leaves is enough to get you thinking of rails, much the way a smudge perched on a dried seedhead says finch or sparrow. Next, my eye shifts to the birds for supplemental evidence: the hunched-over Sora creeping on ridiculously long toes; the upright posture and nearly invisible legs of the passerine, with the flat head, and very large bill giving the Dickcissel a peculiar look that’s not sparrow and not grosbeak.

    Even though I’ve never really seen that many Soras or Dickcissels, that juxtaposition of brown, gray, black, and yellow on the head gets me the rest of the way to species. Perhaps it’s just all the time I’ve spent looking in field guides. Thanks to everyone for commenting.

  • Carol

    I knew the Dickcissel right away, but I have never seen a Sora…when I looked it up and found it is very common and widely distributed throughout the US, I didn’t want to admit I had not seen one….but I read on and found they are quite illusive….now I don’t feel so bad.