Even for those of us who bird regularly, bird identification can be tough. For those with little prior experience, it can be even more difficult. If they don't have experience, binoculars and/or field guides, all people have to rely on is their memory of birds they have seen on TV or in a magazine.
Many times people call, excited that they have found a really unusual bird. Other times they call because they see a bird that "looks like" a very unusual bird, but know that it cannot be what they think it is. Usually, they have found a fairly common bird--just one they haven't seen before and therefore, not one that pops into their minds.
Two examples to illustrate:
- There was a call there were birds that look like penguins building a nest in a tree. The person knew it was very unlikely this is what she had, but the markings looked like a penguin to her. It turned out to be a pair of yellow-crowned night herons. If you know your birds, then the confusion is hard to understand. But if you look at the aspects of the birds (both seem kind of hunched up and stumpy) and you haven't seen night herons, the coloring could lead you to think penguins, especially if the lighting wasn't the best.
- Received a call that there were a couple of bald eagles in a tree in my neighborhood. Well, in June, that is very unlikely, but if I missed a pair of bald eagles because I didn't go look, I would have been upset. I did not see any birds on the tree mentioned, but I did see two Mississippi Kites flying overhead. This is possibly the cause of the confusion. Although to an experienced birder, there is no resemblance between a bald eagle and a Mississippi kite, the fact is they are both raptor type birds and both have a pale head with a darker body. If you have seen both birds, you would recognize immediately the tremendous difference in body size, if nothing else. If you haven't then you might reach for "what hawk-like bird do I know of that has a pale head?" and come up with a bald eagle.
Sometimes, we are not understanding enough when people mis-ID birds. Heck, I have been a birder for most of my life and still make mistakes, even with binoculars, field guides, and a host of other tools. I am just glad that people noticed the birds and were interested enough to try to find out what bird they are seeing. Fortunately, most birders have "been there" and remember what it was like just starting out. The birding list servs are full of requests for ID help, sometimes spurring a lively debate.
So get out there and look for birds and don't worry about making mistakes. Start with a few common birds and work your way to some of the less common. You'll have fun regardless.