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Question about IDing birds based on summer/winter plumage

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Old Saturday 17th December 2011, 17:33   #1
AdAstra09
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Question Question about IDing birds based on summer/winter plumage

Some of the birds I have been helped to identify recently, such as the common moorhen and the house sparrow, appear to be in their 'summer' plumage according to my field guide even though it is december. Now granted, December in Phoenix averages about 70 degrees. So is a bird's 'winter' plumage based on temperature rather than the calendar? That is my assumption but my field guide doesn't address this so I thought I'd ask. Thanks for any help.
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Old Saturday 17th December 2011, 17:40   #2
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Hi! No it's based on the calendar. However, some birds have no difference between winter and summer plumage such as for example Common moorhen and House Sparrow.

Edit: Of course "no difference" was a simplification of the matter. See Steves excellent explanation below. :-)
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Old Saturday 17th December 2011, 17:47   #3
Steve Schoech
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In general, NA species plumage will follow the calendar. The two species that you mention are somewhat interesting, however, in that they do not undergo two molts (basic and alternate) but rather one into the basic. I'm not 100% sure about the moorhen but think that the summer (breeding season) appearance that is characterized by the red and yellow in the bill and red face plate is almost certainly the result of exposure to sex steroid hormones. That's certainly the case for many of the seasonal changes in 'soft part' coloration.
House sparrows (European starlings too) wear into their 'breeding' plumage in that the outer feathers wear to reveal different colors beneath (i.e., the black breast badge in male house sparrows becomes larger and more pronounced).
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Old Saturday 17th December 2011, 20:28   #4
AdAstra09
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Thanks for the clarification! So, it's not summer/winter but rather breeding plumage? The birds are mating now? The reason I ask is because I was looking up the birds I identified recently in my field guide and the moorhen definately had the extensive red of the 'summer version', and the 'winter' house sparrow male appeared to have a dark grey breast with the black bib blending in rather than the cream colored bibs on the house sparrows I've seen recently with the black bibs standing out. And the field guide I use doesn't show breeding plumage for these two species, just winter/summer, although it does show breeding plumage for other species, which makes it more confusing. I use the Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Western Edition, if that makes a difference.
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Old Saturday 17th December 2011, 21:08   #5
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Winter vs. summer is more or less equivalent to nonbreeding vs. breeding. Though note there are exceptions and considerable variation in when birds breed both within and among populations and species.
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Old Saturday 17th December 2011, 23:40   #6
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The biggest confusion usually is for ducks where the breeding plumage usually lasts the second part of fall and most of winter but usually is gone by the time summer rolls around

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Old Sunday 18th December 2011, 00:12   #7
grebefeet9
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because ducks pair up on the wintering grounds.
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Old Sunday 18th December 2011, 13:14   #8
AdAstra09
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Awesome! Thank you guys for your answers! I learned a lot from this thread
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