“Here’s an idea for a blog,” wrote Donna Osburn, a wildlife rehabilitator from Kentucky. “What’s your best misidentification of a bird?”
This is a great topic. It even has two parts. Rehabbers are constantly receiving birds misidentified by their finders; and on occasion some of us even receive birds we misidentify ourselves.
The creature above was brought to me by an elegantly-dressed man who had found him outside his condo. It was the height of baby season, I was insanely overworked and underslept, and I did not – I repeat, did not – do waterbirds, except for mallards and Canada geese and wood ducks and swans etc. etc. etc.
“Such a curious-looking little bird,” said the man. “Could you tell me what he is?”
“Are you kidding me?” I cried. “I have no idea! He looks like somebody threw him out of a spaceship!”
It turns out he was a nestling Green Heron. I found a companion for him, and eventually they both grew up and flew away together.
“We once took in seven tiny brown whatsis, and just figured they must be House Sparrows,” wrote Donna Osburn. “But we kept calling them House Finches because, well, you know, House Sparrows are invasive and non-native and all that. But eventually … they turned into House Finches! The joke was on us!”
Misidentifications from the public are constant and nearly always involve the ubiquitous Rock Dove. “I have received so many calls to come rescue a baby hawk or falcon or some kind of raptor,” wrote Jennifer Dudley, and attached this photo. “Like these ones, here. Can you ID?”
“First time I got a call about a baby vulture,” wrote Michele Wellard, “I hung up and my boss said, “Guaranteed, it’s a pigeon.” He was right! It always is. And I won’t tell them until they get here with it – then most people say, “I drove all this way for a pigeon?!”
Erin Smithies-Baker wrote, “I once had someone call and say they were bringing me a baby hawk … or maybe an owl… no wait, a heron … I couldn’t wait to see what the heck this baby hawkowlheron was. You guessed it – a pigeon.”
“I got a call from a fellow who told me he had found some sort of baby waterbird on the beach,” wrote Becky Marlin. “Definitely a seabird of some kind. Turned out to be a pigeon who had fallen out of a nest under the pier.”
“One night my rehabber friend called me and begged me to take a Winter Wren,” wrote Jayne Neville. “I had a plane to catch the next morning, and I wasn’t going to take anything but an uncommon migrant. My friend said the people had a field guide and they’d identified it exactly. And they delivered … a featherless pigeon. The next morning I’m racing to the pigeon rehabber en route to the airport, and a tractor-trailer took me out! The pigeon and I were fine, but my classic old Porsche was totaled.”
“I had a cockatoo, a vulture, a Snowy Owl, and various hawks that all turned out to be pigeons,” wrote Joanne Cina-Dreeben. “And once I took in three pit bull puppies that turned out to be squirrels.”
“I got a sewer rat a lady thought was a baby opossum,” chimed in Charis Palmer.
“A young girl showed up on my doorstep one night with a ‘baby hawk,’” told Maren Scott. “She said some boys were tormenting it so she punched them in the face and took it away from them.” (NOTE: Can we clone this girl and distribute one of her to every rehabber?) “She handed me an Easter basket and I saw small taloned feet clenched and sticking straight up. There, wrapped neatly in a pink and purple feather boa, was a young male American Kestrel. I think he was dying of shame, he was laying flat on his back praying, ‘Dear God, don’t let any of my friends see me like this.’ We took him to a raptor center and he was eventually released.”
Maureen Eiger reported a call from a distraught person who described “a large injured bird, all black and can’t fly, I think it’s a vulture! It has a very large scary beak and it’s naked around the eyes.” It turned out to be this fledgling Common Grackle .
“Someone brought me a Cliff Swallow he swore was a falcon,” wrote Louise Shimmel. “Despite everything I said and showed him, he was adamant. The best I could do was to finally acknowledge that a swallow was LIKE a falcon, sort of, a predator, and winged insects are sort of like birds, as prey, sort of … right?”
“I had a call from a woman who found two owlets on the ground together,” wrote Lisa Acton. “She put them in a box and delivered them, and when I opened the box I found one Screech Owlet and one nestling American Robin. Luckily the owlet hadn’t eaten the robin! LOL!”
“A high-end restaurant called me to rescue a ‘baby eagle’ they’d found,” wrote Marianne Dominguez. “Turned out to be a European Starling, who immediately sprung up to gape with his big yellow mouth.” Mickie Hortness had two ‘baby vulture’ calls, and “One turned out to be a nestling finch, the other a starling.”
“Here’s the ‘Peregrine Falcon’ a lady found injured and on the ground of a department store parking lot,” sent Maureen Eiger. “She was scared to pick it up because she said it kept poking at her with its beak and it had very big claws. She did get it into a box, and when I opened it I found this Button Quail.”
“I had an elderly lady call about a downed owl in her fenced backyard,” wrote Linda Hufford. “She was afraid to go out, but she had binoculars and described the large ‘ear horns’ and bright yellow eyes, about 2 feet tall. It was indeed a Great Horned Owl – a plastic ornamental one that had ‘flown’ over the fence from her neighbor’s roof.”
“Our local waterbird rehabber got a call about a frozen duck on the median of a highway that hadn’t moved in days,” said Donna Osburn. “She drove 45 minutes with a crate and a net, spotted it, crept up on it … and it was a decoy. That’s probably why it hadn’t moved.”
Occasionally finders mistake not just species, but entire classes. “We had a cuckoo delivered in a glass of water,” said Marge Gibson. “He was alive but cold … we never understood the water, but it was a lawyer who brought him.”