Bird Academy - Inside Birding: Behavior

Watching the way a bird behaves, like these Mottled Ducks foraging behind me, is what attracts so many of us to birding

But besides being fun to watch, the way a bird acts is also  a good clue to its identity

On this episode of "Inside Birding", we’ll examine the third key to identification: behavior, and how it can help you make better observations and more easily identify the birds you see

Oh, cool, there’s a Palm Warbler just below the Yellow-rump

See, it’s flicking its tail

Oh, yeah

That’s cool

Behavior is a critical component of bird identification because, like size and shape, it's consistent and unchanging within a species

With few exceptions, Blue Jays always behave like Blue Jays, Hairy Woodpeckers always behave like  Hairy Woodpeckers, and so on

For identification purposes, we tend to focus on behaviors that are most frequently occurring throughout the year

These are posture, foraging, and flight style

Unlike nesting and courtship behaviors, these are the things we see birds do every day

That thing’s awesome

A couple of Turkey Vultures down right

There’s another one

In order to identify birds by their behavior, we need to break down our observations with a series of questions

Now remember, we're focused primarily on posture, foraging, and flight style

First, let's take a look at posture

A bird’s posture can be broken down by asking two simple questions: where and how

"Where" is the easy part

And while there’s a lot of variation, most species prefer certain places over others

Male Indigo Buntings will perch and sing at the tops of trees at forest edges, while Ovenbirds are commonly found lurking in the forest understory

Many hawks, like this Red-tailed, perch out in the open and sometimes  can be seen on the side of highways

And grebes, like these Red-necked Grebes,  are almost always seen on the water

After examining "where", it's time to take a look at how the bird is perched or standing

Does it stand hunched over like this Black-crowned Night-Heron? Or is its posture more upright like this American Golden-Plover? A warbler’s posture, like this Wilson’s, is more horizontal, while cardinals tend to sit very upright

Also observe if a bird  exhibits any repeated movements or ticks

These motions, like the tail dipping on an Eastern Phoebe are often unique to certain species and are very helpful for identification

The Northern Waterthrush offers us another great example of repeated body movements

See how it’s constantly bobbing its tail? The Winter Wren has its own version of this kind of behavior --  it repeatedly bounces its entire body up and down

Now, let's take a look at foraging behavior

Just as with posture, the first thing we're going to do is break the behavior down  with a set of simple questions, first asking, where does this bird forage? Ducks, like this Mallard, typically forage on the water, while wading birds, like this Lesser Yellowlegs, are most commonly seen  stalking prey in the shallows

Other birds, like this Horned Lark, like to forage on the ground in open areas and fields

And let's not forget feeders

There are a number of birds that frequently visit backyard feeders to forage on seed or suet

Once we've observed "where", it's time to ask how does the bird forage? Shorebirds, like this Piping Plover, dash around and then pause to pick food off the surface

Short-billed Dowitchers have a different style

They probe deep into the mud for their meal

Some birds, like this Brown Creeper, excavate their meal from  underneath tree bark

While others, like this woodcock, pull it from the ground

Flycatchers, like this Tropical Kingbird, are aerial acrobats, sailing from an exposed perch to catch insects on the wing

And the White-throated Sparrow provides a great example of how certain birds can find food by scratching through leaf-litter

Even the birds coming to your feeder exhibit different foraging styles

A Black-capped Chickadee, for example, will snag a seed and quickly takeoff for a nearby branch before eating it, while a Rose-breasted Grosbeak will stay on the feeder to eat as much as it can

Finally, once you’ve looked at where and how, try to figure out what the bird is eating

Birds can be a masterful hunters and, like this Tricolored Heron, can make catching fish look easy

Warblers, like this Yellow-rumped, move quickly through trees and shrubs in pursuit of insects

Other birds, like this Carolina Chickadee, rely on seeds for their meal

And in the late summer or early fall, you can often find robins or Cedar Waxwings eating berries

If you watch closely, you'll be amazed at what birds,  like this Purple Gallinule, eat

Flight style is more nuanced, but you should do your best to broadly describe what you're seeing, focusing on wing beats and directness of flight

So if we look at a tern, like this Arctic Tern, you'll notice how they hover on snappy, shallow wing beats, before plunging into the water to catch fish

Short-eared Owls fly with deep moth-like wing beats, punctuated by short glides

And ducks, like these shovelers, are recognizable by their wickedly fast wing beats

And shorebirds, like these Hudsonian Godwits, are commonly seen in fast-moving flocks

By comparison, Sandhill Cranes exhibit deep, methodical wing beats and  arrow-straight flight patterns

Even soaring birds, like this Osprey, have characteristic flight styles that allow you to identify them

The Bald Eagle soars on flat, steady wings

Look how different this is from the Turkey Vulture's  v-shaped, teetering flight style

While keying in on flight style may seem difficult, if you stick with it you’ll start to recognize the differences between species that will help you identify them

Brown Pelicans going over the crest of the sea break

About 35 or so..

See the Royal Terns on the beach? The diversity of bird behavior is astounding

And while it seems like one of the more difficult keys to employ, the fundamentals of birding by behavior are actually quite simple

It's all about your observations

And to make good observations, all you really need to do is spend time watching the birds you see

If you spend time watching bird behavior, the way they move, fly, and forage, I guarantee that you’ll develop a real appreciation  for what you're seeing

And remember, just as with the shape of a  bird’s bill or the melody of a bird’s song, the way a bird behaves is consistent within a species

This makes behavior a very reliable indicator for bird identification

So get out there, makes some good observations, and you'll take your birding to the next level

See the Royal Tern on the right? Oh, I got it.

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