Juvenile Animals

This young bird looks almost like a new species rather than the beautiful robin it will become.

When I heard the “thunk” outside on our deck, I groaned. Without looking, I knew that a bird had struck our window. I turned around to see an inert form lying on the picnic table. I walked outside and gingerly picked up the small bird. It was still alive so I looked around for someplace to set it down. In the meantime, I puzzled at what kind of bird it could be. It was perhaps slightly larger than a sparrow, had distinct wing stripes and a yellow hue on chest and rump. Its bill was longer than a sparrow and I finally realized that it must be a juvenile western tanager.

This time of year, it is common to see lots of youngsters of every sort almost to the point that it seems there are an abundance of new species. With some animals the juvenile looks like a small or gangly version of the adult. This is true with most mammals. Deer and pronghorn fawns and elk calves are losing their spots and are readily recognizable as junior versions of their moms. Before the marmots in my yard went back to sleep, the youths looked identical to the adults, just smaller. Offhand, I can’t think of a juvenile mammal that doesn’t look very similar to the adult by the time it is several months old.

This is a little less true in the reptile and amphibian world. Young alligators do look like alligators except for a difference in coloration. Young turtles look like adult turtles right from hatching. Snakes sometimes change color patterns between juvenile and adult phases. I recall seeing a juvenile cottonmouth snake in Georgia and marveling at the beautiful brown design. Later that day, I saw a large adult cottonmouth and it was jet black. Where there is the largest change is in frogs and toads that go through metamorphosis. A young frog or toad starts out looking like a fish then may, for a short time, have a tail which adults don’t have.

Birds, it seems, have the greatest variation between juvenile and adult. Coloration takes time to fully develop. For instance, it may take five years for a juvenile bald eagle to completely obtain the magnificent white head and tail of an adult. Other juvenile raptors look quite different from their parents, slowly growing into the adult coloration.

A friend from Texas recently sent me a photo of a dark colored bird, not black but rather, dark gray, asking for help with identification. I looked carefully at the bird and based on the bill shape and size, I suggested that it might be a juvenile common grackle but, honestly, it was hard to tell. Young birds tend toward the cryptic and identifying them to species can be a challenge.

In my experience, juveniles of birds where both parents have cryptic or plain coloration tend to look more like their parents more quickly. Ruffed grouse come to mind. Juveniles look like miniature versions of the parents as soon as they can fly.

However, juveniles of birds with colorful males will usually look much more like the female for most of the first season. As the young males start to develop their first adult plumage, they may look like nothing you have ever seen in a bird guide, falling between the adult female and male.

The young tanager that hit my window slowly recovered over half an hour and finally took flight. I think we both learned a lesson about identification: me about looking carefully for clues on young birds and he about looking for hidden traps such as windows.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho