top of page
  • Lake Chapala

Birds by Dr. Tom:

Flowering plants and birds began at approximately the same time: 160 mya. Both took off after an event in the late Cretaceous that happened near Yucatan. Insects and plants, probably wasps fertilizing figs, were the start of the botanical property of attracting creatures. Bees, the descendants of wasps, took over first then dinosaurs became involved when fruits began to attract them. Jack Horner speculates that seed spreading by dinosaurs was very important in the propagation of fruiting plants. The most recent theory of flight evolution involves bipedal creatures running on their hind limbs and flapping the feathered forelimbs to either entrap prey or to increase their speed for capture. After the k/t event (meteor strike off Yucatan) birds, flowering plants and mammals headed toward the present. Birds developed into 10,000 species of which more than 1000 are in Mexico. Our gardens attract about 30 and morning is our best time to observe them.

Here are some tips to make identifying birds easier. First ask "How big is the bird?" Is it as big as a sparrow, a robin, a pigeon or an ostrich? Surprisingly, the size of a bird will often help in identifying a new bird even more than color. Comparing an unknown bird to another bird we are all familiar with is easy and remarkably accurate.

Smaller than a Sparrow 2 to 5 “

Sparrow Size 5 to 8“

Robin Size 8 to 12 “

Pigeon Size 12 to 16 “

Is the bird fat or skinny, long or short? Look at each part of the bird. Is its bill short or long, thick or thin, curved or straight? Recall the bill must do everything the forelimbs do for other creatures – grasp, gleen, groom, dig, carry, dissect, scratch, fight, turn eggs, etc. How about the tail? What shape is it? Is it forked? Is it patterned?

After you do all this, and then notice the main colors of the bird. This sounds crazy, but it works. The colors of a bird can play tricks on you. A bird's colors look different when the bird is at the top of a tree at sunset than it does at noon. Check the color of each major body part. Sometimes just the color of a bird's legs can help you tell one species from another. Also check to see if the bird has wing bars or an eye-ring, a patch of color on its rump or white outer tail feathers.

Most garden birds are between hummingbird and robin size. Next we look at their plumage, beaks, size, shape and silhouette then after the bird flies away, only then, get a book and begin to thumb through it. Taxonomy has been touched on when mentioning plumage and beaks, so next I hope you will also be able to notice the shape and shading patterns of the head. Is the beak thin, pointed or triangular? Most books begin illustrations with water birds then larger birds so you can skip toward the middle. Pointy beaks [insect and general feeding] precede the conical ones [seed eating]. After the size is chosen, you can search for the color. Birds most seen in gardens are sparrows, finches, warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles and ground doves. You may want a book for differentiating the individuals of the groups.

As to a field guide, choose one with drawings (artistic interpretations) of the birds. It is likely to include more of the features you noticed than a book with photos. Peterson, Sibley, Van Perlo [most birders in Mexico carry this book], Edwards produce illustration books. Kaufman and even Google provide photos. Type in 'How to ID birds' or see Cornell Ornithology for pictures and sounds. Grouping in the books will have warblers-vireos, and sparrows-finches, arranged near one another. Flycatchers will be separate.

You may have noticed some helpful bits of behavior that will differentiate the suggested groupings:

Vireos vs. Warblers [thin pointed beaks]: Vireos tend to be more purposeful in their movements. They fly to a branch and feed there a few moments and then fly to another branch and feed there (fly and land). Most warblers are constantly moving when they are feeding (fly and feed). These two species are a similar size and shape, but all vireos have a slightly hooked tip to the bill. Warblers are usually more colorful.

Sparrows vs. Finches [conical beaks]:

Among finches the male is more brightly

colored and the female duller. Typically, sparrows are less colorful and they feed mostly on the ground, scratching under the litter for seeds or insects, while finches are more arboreal, searching for food on the seed heads of grasses, thistles, etc. If both are in a group feeding on the ground, when alarmed, the sparrows will move to low brush and the finches will go higher.

Colorful flycatchers tend to feed by parking on a perch, dart out ('sally forth') for a mid-air insect snack and return to the same place several times before moving to a new site.

Here is list of the birds you are most likely to see:

Hummingbirds: They weigh 2 - 4 grams, may consume 2 x their weight of nectar daily and excrete 70-85% of their wt. each day. Equal to us voiding 20 gallons! See many varieties at Flossie's. Across from Barbara's Bazaar a lady has about 15 feeders and has even posted the names of hummers likely to be at which feeder! She welcomes anyone most any morning – take sugar or 10 pesos to help her. For the next few weeks there is a very special hummer, The Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird that is only here about five weeks a year. Worth a trip.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Berylline Hummingbird (rare)

Red Birds:

Summer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Vermilion Flycatcher Birds that feed bees to their young remove the stingers and those that feed grasshoppers remove the rough legs.

House Finch

Red around head and throat:

Golden Fronted Woodpecker: This one nests close to humans. Presumably to deter predators such as snakes and hawks. All woodpeckers have an undulating flight pattern. Their wings are folded during their glide. Some have been observed dipping their chicks food in the nectar of hummer feeders. Their tongue, equal to their body in length, wraps around the head and provides cushioning for the brain during wood chiseling.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Blue Birds:

Barn Swallow: these are guys that build mud nests and reduce mosquito populations.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue-Purple (glossy):

Great-tailed Grackle: If not in your yard, then taking handouts at an outdoor cafe.

Groove-billed Ani: Not as graceful as the former, but has the unusual trait of communal nesting.

Bronzed Cowbird: Note the red eye. Cowbirds aren't praised by birders due to their nesting habit of substituting one of their eggs for that of a smaller bird, usually warblers.

Orange Birds:

Bullock's Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Orchard Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

Orioles are attracted to flowering trees.

They drill holes in the sides of flowers to reach the nectar.

Yellow Birds:

Hooded Oriole

Western Tanager

Yellow Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

Great Kiskadee: Their name may be from their song.

Social Flycatcher

Tropical Kingbird

Black Birds:

These three will be seen in the sky as silhouettes.

Black Vulture

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Turkey Vulture

Mexico has the only melodious blackbird and it can be heard in the trees along the airport driveway as they roost there.

Black Crow

Gray Birds:

Tropical Mockingbird

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Inca Dove: Note the white outer tail feathers as it leaves.

Black & White Birds:

Black-and-White Warbler

Brown birds:

House Sparrow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Canyon Wren: They nest under tile eaves and are more often heard than seen. Wrens are nervous critters and pose in the patterns shown here, dipping before looking in another direction.

Bewick's wren

Multi-colored Birds:

Russet Crowned MotMot: This bird plucks barbs from the two central tail feathers to form a racquet shape which it swings back and forth when sitting. It nests in holes above creek beds. There is such an area on the Chula Vista golf course. There are 8 of these species worldwide, Mexico has 6.

Rufous-backed Robin

Lazuli Bunting

Lesser Goldfinch

White-collared Seedeater

Birds Heard at Night:

Buff-Collared Night Jar Length: 9 in. (23 cm )

A nocturnal species, this nightjar is related to Whip-poor-wills and similarly uses its large eyes and gaping mouth to hunt flying insects close to the ground. It is found in dry open woodlands, scrub and thorny forest edge. Spends much of its time sitting on the ground or low rocks.

Attracting Birds:

If you are interested in attracting them see the hints at: '' You will find info on Water, Food, Cover and Nesting areas.

'How to ID birds' for pictures and

'Cornell Ornithology' for pictures and sounds.

'Vince Gravel birds of Mexico'

964 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All