General Question

Mariah's avatar

Can you help me ID this bird?

Asked by Mariah (25883points) October 30th, 2011

I think it was a kind of woodpecker or nuthatch. There were two, and I’m fairly certain they were a male and female pair. Both were a bit bigger than sparrows. The male had a black and white striped head and a red beak – the beak itself was red, no other red on him. His belly was solid gray and his back was spotted black and white. The female looked a lot like him but she had a brownish tone. I live in the northeast US. I don’t seen anything in my birdbook matching this description, but many birds are changing colors for the winter and I’m thinking maybe my book just shows summer coloring. Any ideas?

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21 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Check out the Hairy or the Downy. Nothing quite fits your description, as given.

Coloma's avatar

Do they creep up and down the trees upside down?
Maybe Creepers or Nuthatches. Any pics?

lillycoyote's avatar

Sorry, I first identified the bird as something extremely rare. LOL. I have a tendency to do that.
Did the birds act like wood peckers or nuthatches, if not could it maybe have been a white-crowned sparrow?

gailcalled's avatar

I can’t imagine any small bird who is hanging around the NE at this time of year to have a red beak. White-crowned is a possibility.

Mariah's avatar

@gailcalled Those were my first thoughts, but they have patches of red feathers…unless they lose those in the winter, it’s not a match.

@Coloma I didn’t see them on trees, unfortunately; they were on my back deck. They were pecking at the ground in a manner a bit like a woodpecker but there were seeds on the floor of the deck so they may have just been going for those. I grabbed a picture on my cell phone but they were too far away and just appear as a small blur!

@lillycoyote Oooh, that really might be right. All the markings are just about spot on. I wish I could see them again, though, because I’m remembering them as looking more thin and nuthatch shaped than sparrow shaped, but now I’m not sure.

@gailcalled The beak did look red but I was at a bit of a distance, could have been more of a reddish-brown.

Thanks for your responses so far!

whitetigress's avatar

Where do you live? Birds are very “regional” so that might help you out. Then just search Red Beak bird + your location :D

gailcalled's avatar

Hairy and downy have some red feathers on their heads. Looky here

Lily’s red-billed is gorgeous but really unlikely…a rare bird, as one says.

Common birds here now who peck on the ground are the juncos, but they never have any red. And they are more torpedo shaped than their sleeker friends, the creeper and the nuthatch

One of the fascinating and frustrating things about birding is what you think you saw and what was reality. It happens to me all the time.

See figure fifteen here; Non-typical Eastern Juncos.

Coloma's avatar


Hmm…yeah, it’s not likely that Creepers or Nuthatches would be feeding on the ground.
I have White and Yellow crowned sparrows over here, but the reddish beak is mysterious. :-/
Ruby Crowned Kinglets have red on their heads, but, they are super tiny and zippy, and stay in the trees for the most part.

Mariah's avatar

Sorry Gail, I just reread my reply to you and it was extremely unclear. I meant that Hairy and Downy have patches of red, but the birds I saw don’t. Except the beak.

I’m increasingly sure that white-crowned sparrow is right…I’m reading descriptions of their behavior and they’re spot-on. This website says “the beak is orange-yellow to reddish-brown depending on the subspecies.” Another website said sexes are similar, but the one I linked describes juveniles as having “brown and tan head stripes rather than black and white, which they keep until the spring,” so maybe it wasn’t a male and female pair after all…mighta been mommy bird and baby bird. :3

Thanks guys!

lillycoyote's avatar

@gailcalled Yes, the red-billed sparrow, not bloody likely, LOL , I edited my answer very shortly after I posted it, but not soon enough for your eagle eye. :-). I am believe the birds may be white-crowned sparrows. If you revisit my comment you will see that.

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gailcalled's avatar

@ratboy: Did hair and make-up paint that bill?

That certainly confirms it.

Coloma's avatar

Aaah yes, the white crowned sparrow! Well, I’d ID that beak as gold, not red. Maybe there are color variables.

I have tons of these guys in my corral gleaning goose grain. :-)

Mariah's avatar

@ratboy That picture is beautiful! The beak there is a little bit lighter and oranger than what I (think I) saw though. I found somebody’s blog post with beautiful pictures of many kinds of sparrows, including white-crowned. The beak on the last white-crowned picture looks a lot like what I saw. And there are pictures of juveniles too; I’m remembering mine as being even more brown-toned than the first picture but the second one seems about right. It’s hard to say at this point; I’m just going by memory now.

gailcalled's avatar

@Mariah: For birders, if you get only a peak at a bird, in the case of the white-crowned, you would automatically notice the coloration of the top of the head. And there are infinite kinds of small variations of color and pattern-distribution.

But I bet that the collective has reached the right decision by consensus. (Never mind what you actually might have seen.) This does fits the pattern, size, shape, conical seed-eating bill shape and winter terrain for the northeastern US.

Mariah's avatar

How cool is this! I was typing my above response when I looked out the window to my right and the juvenile’s back, alone this time unfortunately. There was a junco on the deck with him but he chased it off. I read on @lillycoyote‘s original link, “White-crowned Sparrows will share their territories with Fox Sparrows, but chase Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos until they leave,” so it was cool to see that in action. Then I remembered that we’ve been seeing a large sparrow at our feeder quite a bit over the last few weeks. Because the juvenile is so much more brownish than the adult he didn’t stick out to us so much. I’m excited to see that they must be living close by. I’ve decided to keep my camera close by at all times because the cell phone camera just isn’t cutting it. I got only this useless pic.

gailcalled's avatar

@@Mariah: The shape (slightly hunched over and egg-shaped) and location indicates a seed-eating, ground feeder who likes winter in New England. That gives you a lot of information.

Here’s a nice publication from Cornell about winter birding in the US.

And this about winter backyard birding in New England.

Coloma's avatar


I did the Cornell “Project feeder watch” for about 5 years in the 90’s. Lots of fun.
I especially enjoyed counting and watching the Pine Siskins whose numbers vary greatly in their migratory patterns every year. I also had a Redpoll which is highly unlikely in my area mixed in with a flock of house and purple finches. I had a local Audobon person come out and make a positive ID. Fun!

Mariah's avatar

Thanks for those links, Gail. I’m a newbie bird enthusiast and I’m finding it a very fun hobby.

My little juvenile paid me another visit, and this time I had my camera at the ready. I got lots of shots of him, this one being my favorite because he pointed his little striped head right at me. Wish mommy or daddy would come back.

Coloma's avatar


Great pic! I once made a blind out of brown tarps and went stealth for photo opportunities at me feeders. I got the best closeups, but, be prepared to wait a looong time. lol

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