A bird thought to be a new species was discovered to be a seagull covered in curry, CBS News reported. The brightly-colored orange gull was transported to Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England, where the mystery was solved. Identifying bird species is vital to hobbyists and biologists alike.
Whether you see it as an embarrassing mistake, a rash judgment by overzealous birders, or otherwise, the supposedly exotic bird discovered last week has been positively identified as a seagull covered completely in curry. According to CBS News, the gull was bathed and scrubbed clean shortly after his admission to the wildlife hospital, who reportedly said that apart from its strong smell and odd appearance, the gull was in perfect health. However, if not for the smell, how exactly would veterinarians correctly identify the bird’s species? As it turns out, bird identification is a nuanced tool that carefully analyzes shape, size, and color of birds to determine their species. You can do it, too, and all you need is a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a notebook and pen.
Identifying Shapes of Birds
“Getting to know the different families of birds requires effort—you really need to study the physical attributes that are pertinent to each family,” James Currie, host of Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV, said. He pointed to pigeons and doves as an example, who both belong to the bird family Columbidae. “Pigeons and doves have short legs and bills, are plump in shape, and have relatively small heads in relation to body size. By contrast, I can observe that members of the warbler family that are small birds with relatively long tails and long legs, with slender body shapes. Making these distinctions between the different families and orders of birds is a crucial first step in bird identification.”
Looking only at a bird’s shape can help any birder narrow down what it is they’re looking at. Currie turned to the northern cardinal as his next example. “From shape alone, you can categorize the northern cardinal as a passerine with its short neck, shorter bill, and medium-sized legs,” he said. “You’ve eliminated the fact that it does not have the shape of any other broad category of birds: no hook-shaped bill of the hawks, no long legs of the wading birds, it’s not pigeonlike, nor does it cling to trees like a woodpecker.”
Determining Bird Sizes on the Fly
Unless you’re friendly enough with a bird that it allows you to approach it with a tape measure, determining a bird’s size can be difficult. However, there are ways around it. “First, try to compare the bird that you’re looking at with a species you know well,” Currie said. He used the example that if you’re looking at a bird that’s smaller than a pigeon but larger than a starling, you can make a decent approximation of its size.
“Second, if the bird is among other birds, it’s often very useful to compare the bird’s size with other birds in your field of view,” Currie said. “Again, we’ll use the example of the northern cardinal. At your bird feeder, you might be able to see quite clearly that the bird you’re looking at is smaller than a blue jay but larger than the house sparrow in the same view.” Once the general size and shape are in your mind, you can write them down and start focusing on the size and shape of specific body parts like the tail and bill to help you ID your bird.
Color—The Deceptive Indicator
Although color can help identify some birds, Currie said it’s more of a last resort than anything. “Color is, believe it or not, the least helpful of the three main identification indicators,” he said. “First, color is often different in younger birds and between genders. Furthermore, color can be affected by light and other environmental conditions.”
Currie said that there are two main ingredients that go into a bird’s color: pigment and keratin. Keratin is a tough protein of which feathers are made, while pigment—of which there are three groups—is a “relatively simple color marker,” in his words. “The first pigment is called melanin and it produces black or dark brown coloration,” he said. “The second group of pigments are called carotenoids and they produce the red, orange, or yellow feathers we see in birds. The third group of pigments are called porphyrins, and these are essentially modified amino acids [that] can produce red, brown, pink, and green colors.” His final word of advice was to take note of color the way a child colors in a picture—you already have the shape and size, so look at the bird’s overall colors, colors of body parts, and shading last.
With these handy tools, anyone can become a birder. Just make sure you’ve stowed your curry in your spice rack before you get started.
James Currie contributed to this article. Currie holds a bachelor’s degree in African Languages from the University of Cape Town and a master’s degree in Sustainable Environmental Management from Middlesex University London. Mr. Currie hosts Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV, a popular birding show airing on Discovery Communications’ Destination America.