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Bird Quiz – Identified

August 29, 2015

Here you go!  Another installment in our never-ending series of bird identification quizzes.  This bird – possibly the same individual, possibly not – was spotted this August at Malibu by two of our perspicacious photographers. Get out your field guides and go to it. Fame and fortune will doubtfully accrue to the swiftest.  [Chuck Almdale]

Post Quiz comments 8/29/15:
Birds in molt are tricky, and I claim no expertise in this matter. Passerines are generally altricial when born and may have only a few downy feathers, unlike precocial birds like ducks which are covered in down and can run around within a few hours. They soon undergo a complete prejuvenal molt, the juvenal plumage appears and they become able to fly. Northern hemisphere juvenile birds then have a 1st prebasic molt July – Sept., just after breeding season, which is a partial molt (wing and tail feathers often not replaced). Adult birds have a complete prebasic molt at this time. Molts in grackles can take over 110 days. The springtime molt is the prealternate, resulting in the alternate (often called breeding) plumage. Not all birds – American Robins and woodpeckers for example – have a prealternate molt, but breed in their basic plumage which may appear different through wear, as do the European Starlings, whose Autumn “stars” have mostly worn off. Thus “breeding” and “alternate” plumages are not perfectly synonymous.

Here’s lots of information on aging, sexing and molts from the Universities of Illinois.

Randy Ehler 8/6/15

Quiz bird view 1 Great-tailed Grackle in molt – Randy Ehler 8/6/15

So what do we have with these two August birds? They are certainly molting Great-tailed Grackles. Bird #1 (top or first bird) has a light eye, fully-developed bill, breast feathers are ruffled – they may be streaked but don’t really look like it. Tail and wing feathers look fully-developed except secondaries which are uneven, probably still growing in. Females of our western subspecies nelsoni are smaller and paler than subspecies elsewhere. I think it’s a molting adult female.


Bird #2 looks different. Eye iris is a dark amber, as a juvenile should have. R.K Selander in The Condor (Nov. 1958, prior to split of Great-tailed from Boat-tailed) notes:

There was a wide range of variation in iris color in first-year birds in August, September, and October. The average condition was “pale yellow,” with extremes described as “pale whitish or grayish yellow” and “flat yellow of moderate intensity.” Intensity of yellow continued to increase through November, and by December some individuals had irides that were adult in color.

Head and neck feathers in our bird seem quite undeveloped. According to Selander, male postjuvenal molt began Jun 19 – Jul 17, ending Oct 6 – Nov 28, averaging 105 – 110 days. Female postjuvenal  molt began later and was shorter: Jul 19 – Aug 10, ending Sep 24 – Nov 16, averaging 80 – 90 days.  Prebasic molt begins with primary 1 (innermost); in a few days it is 1/3rd grown and all the secondary flight feathers fall out. While primary 7 is developing, the head feathers begin to be replaced, starting at the back of the head and spreading forward. When primary 9 is dropped all the tail feathers fall out and the bird is tailless for about two weeks. This seems weird, but there it is.

I think our bird #2 is a juvenile female, going through its 1st prebasic molt into its 1st basic plumage. The red breast is mostly in, tail feathers are quite straggly, and I don’t think all the primaries are in. Head and neck feathers are not all in. It’s possible that this bird is not entirely healthy. Sickness or an inadequate diet can slow or subvert a molt.  Examples of this are our local male House Finches, usually red but often orange or yellow; this is the result of either sickness or lack of carotenoids in their diet, probably from living in smoggy L.A.

Additional Post Quiz comment 8/30, following on discussion of eye color.
Adult male (picture A below) in basic plumage below shows a very pale white or pale yellow eye.
Adult male (picture B below) in basic plumage below shows a very pale eye with a contracted iris, looking paler than bird A.
Adult female (picture C below) in basic plumage shows a somewhat less pale (therefore darker) amber or brownish eye with some what larger iris than adult male #1.
Note that the larger the pupil, the smaller the area of iris, making eye appear darker. The female’s pupil appears larger, than is the male’s pupil. This may well make the iris appear darker than otherwise.
The eye of Quiz bird female #2, while not black, is darker than female bird C below.

Great-tailed Grackle adult male basic plumage 12/22/23

A. Great-tailed Grackle adult male basic plumage 12/22/23

Great-tailed Grackle male basic plumage small pupil (Randy Ehler 9/28/14)

B. Great-tailed Grackle male basic plumage small pupil (Randy Ehler 9/28/14)

Great-tailed Grackle adult female basic plumage 11/27/07

C. Great-tailed Grackle adult female basic plumage 11/27/07


Here’s a link to a nice collection of Great-tailed Grackle photos by the Birding Dutchman, showing various stages of plumage.

Quiz bird view 2 - Joyce Waterman 8/23/15

Quiz bird view 2 Great-tailed Grackle in molt – Joyce Waterman 8/23/15

  1. ovibose gmail permalink
    August 29, 2015 5:48 pm


    Lovely and elegant creatures! No wonder we’re all so addicted to birding.

    I’d say both are immature Great-tailed Grackles. 2 different birds. The upper may be an adult female though if not a juvenile. The lower looks more certainly to be a juvenile.

    If I guess right, I bequeath all the fame and fortune to you.

    Thanks, Don White


  2. August 29, 2015 10:36 am

    I’ll go with Bob on bird#1, but the second one I’d say is a female adult in molt. Juveniles have dark eyes, AFAICT.


    • Chukar permalink*
      August 29, 2015 12:43 pm

      I think the 2nd bird DOES have a dark eye. It’s not black, but it’s not yellow, more of a dark amber or brown. Anyway GTGR certainly. Molts are tricky. I’ve added some comments above to the original posting.


      • August 29, 2015 5:49 pm

        Weeellll, I see the back of the eye in #2 and it is clearly not dark. However, bearing in mind all the options, all that does is rule out Boat-tailed Grackle.

        I say Elegant Tern.


      • Chukar permalink*
        August 30, 2015 12:12 pm

        Chuck Bragg: Dark and light are relative, with numerous gradations. Black is (normally) dark, but dark does not imply black. Same with white and light. People with color blindness might have problems with such distinctions. While bird #2 eye is certainly not black – I said dark amber – that doesn’t make it white or yellow or even light. “Clearly” is a vastly overused word these days, used primarily to obfuscate, IMHO. I’ve included two new photos (Jim Kenney’s) of male & female adult birds. Bird #2 eye is “clearly” is not as light as the male’s, and I don’t think it even comes up to the medium lightness of adult female’s eye, and all these birds are in good sunlight. If you read the rest of the yesterday’s text, it shows that it takes months for the eye to change colors. The link I gave to the source text has much more information. I’ll stick with my pre-1st basic molt ID, while acknowledging that this is a tricky area and you may be right, except about the Elegant Tern ID. That’s clearly wrong.


  3. Robert Gurfield permalink
    August 29, 2015 9:41 am

    Hi Chuck, My guess: Great tailed Grackle, female juvenile. Thanks. Bob Gurfield


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