Your Baby Bird Questions—Solved

December 10, 2023

A review by Sheridan Alford

Baby Bird Identification: A North American Guide, by Linda Tuttle-Adams

Comstock Publishing Associates, 2022

432 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15247

In my profession, as in any, there are certain questions you get asked most frequently. Some of the questions I get include: “What’s your favorite bird?” “Is feeding birds bread bad or good?” “What do I do if I find a baby bird?” “Do you know what kind of bird this is (while showing a grainy, out-of-focus cellphone photo)?” The combination of the last two questions is one that is a complex topic for many birding enthusiasts, from professionals with limited knowledge on the subject to children who would love to bring a wild animal home to take care of. How do you identify a baby bird? In a field where misidentification can do more harm than good, Baby Bird Identification: A North American Guide by Linda Tuttle-Adams is the book we’ve been waiting for to fill in these gaps.

Tuttle-Adams has composed a guide to answering these haunting questions but not without first outlining the importance of certified wildlife rehabilitators and the ethics of their work. I applaud Tuttle-Adams for putting these notes at the beginning of the book so as not mislead readers into thinking they can become an expert based on this book—and to remind experts of the fragility of their task to care for a baby bird. Appendix B provides questions for a rehabilitator to ask of the person who found the baby bird, and it includes an examination guide for what to do with the baby bird once it is in the hand of a professional.

The goal is to help them identify the bird species for care purposes, habitat management, and enrichment needs. In any case, the first step would be to try to find out what kind of bird it is. If you’ve ever seen a baby bird in any life stage, you know how almost impossible it is for the untrained eye to decipher fluff, wrinkles, or big bulging eyes with little more context than where you found it. This guide provides comprehensive answers using clear explanations, detailed descriptions, and thoroughness that I describe below.

Tuttle-Adams focuses mainly on altricial species within the contiguous U.S., Alaska, and Canada and includes commonly encountered species, as well as species that are less likely to be represented in other books and that are therefore the most difficult to identify. The book is coded and labeled beautifully and distinctly, making it comprehensive for both professionals and enthusiasts. It puts all identification information into sensible chapters and would be an easy grab for a refresher on the anatomy and structural needs of various baby birds.

Seeing all the information in one place is honestly astounding. I was blown away by and appreciated the color descriptions and examples in the appendices and the comparison tables, which can be the most challenging part of narrowing down your identification. The plates were brought to life by Tuttle-Adams’s skilled hands; as an artist, there is a special appreciation for explaining which colors are used and described so that no one is confused between tan and tawny. The years of study it took to gather and compile illustrations, instructions, and notes deserve respect.

This book will become a textbook staple in the field of bird rehabilitation. This will be a standard guide that bird rehab organizations will keep at their desks as a constant first-grab resource. Before the plates and species accounts, Tuttle-Adams provides an entire course’s worth of knowledge on baby birds’ anatomy and life stages, including the meaning of different gape colors, varying diets, and determining the age and stage of the chick based on these clues. Tables and illustrations support each text description that is neatly outlined for reference. Tuttle-Adams also includes information about precocial young in a shorter section, but she provides the same pointers for identification. While Chapter 3 covers growth, development, and estimating the age of the baby bird, Chapter 4 breaks down the step-by-step identification instructions, homing in on how you will go from “blob found on the ground” to “kingfisher chick.”

After reading the key provided on individual species’ descriptions, the reader can jump into the species accounts section. And do read the key! There is a compilation of literature notes on each family at the beginning of that family’s section. Each description provides quantitative data on adults, nestlings, and fledgings. I wish the families were listed in the table of contents, but, in any case, they are organized in two major sections by passerines and non-passerine species. Since a book with a plate of every species would be monstrous, the author graciously provides plates separated by distinguishable features, and she includes species that would be found in the wild most commonly. The reader can reference the plates alongside the species descriptions in the species accounts section.

Before this guide, getting lost in the vast, yet sparse, expanse of information on the internet about baby birds was the expected outcome. Baby Bird Identification: A North American Guide is a fully comprehensive guide that fills in gaps few others can. The immense care for the subject is shown through Tuttle-Adams’ elaborate descriptions and attention to detail in both text and illustration.

As a wildlife professional who has observed the birding world in many capacities, I used to think that baby birds would remain a general mystery and could be understood only by the truly dedicated. With the addition of this guide to my collection, I am confident that readers can spread knowledge of baby birds accurately and efficiently to all who are interested.

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Sheridan Alford is an Environmental Educator and the Director of Community Engagement at Georgia Audubon. She received her Master of Natural Resources in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management from the University of Georgia. Sheridan is passionate about citizen science, youth involvement, and the benefits of ecotherapy for mental health.