[Kevin McGowan, course instructor] Birds are fascinating to watch. They do so many things.

They’re always moving, flying, hopping, swimming, singing, or interacting.

They’re often climbing, probing, picking, eating, displaying, or doing something that draws our attention.

Sometimes a bird’s behavior is easily understood. A heron catching a fish, or a parrot eating fruit is obviously about getting food.

But, sometimes, it’s not easy to tell just what a bird is doing. They can make some odd displays, and do some crazy things.

Are they fighting? Courting? Defending a territory? Trying to attract a mate? Or are they using some odd method to find food?

The first step in learning to understand bird behavior is to get a sense of the range of things that birds do and get a handle on what preoccupies them.

But don’t stop there. The real fun comes in seeing it all from a bird’s point of view—and going beyond to explore why birds are doing what they’re doing and uncover the forces that shape their decisions and actions.

Understanding behavior from a bird-centered view unlocks all sorts of new insights—insights that will make your encounters with birds even richer.End of transcript

You’ve just seen a massive V-shaped flock of geese passing overhead, an entire flotilla of ducks bobbing their heads rhythmically, or maybe a handful of crows dive-bombing a hawk. They’re awe-inspiring to witness, but do you feel confident interpreting these behaviors? Are you eager to know more about what’s actually going on?

We developed this course to help you think like a bird. It is designed to transform your birdwatching experiences by giving you all the tools you need to understand why your favorite birds act the way they do, no matter where in the world you go.

Two Cardinals

Understand Bird Behavior

Get an insider’s perspective on the lives of birds. This approach to observation will keep you fascinated for a lifetime.

  • Become familiar with the full spectrum of bird behavior through stunning field clips.
  • Gain confidence interpreting what birds are doing through Mystery Behavior Challenges.
  • Cultivate a bird-centered perspective throughout the course and take your birdwatching to the next level.

 What’s Inside

Your instructor Kevin McGowan explains how he got hooked on bird behavior, why he developed this course, and what you can expect to learn.

Hi, I’m Kevin McGowan. I’ve loved birds all my life. I’ve always wanted to identify every bird I see, but I also have been fascinated by what they were doing, by their behavior. Birds are cool to watch because we can see them do so much. They’re conspicuous, they’re out in the day like us, not like other mammals, and they’re everywhere.

I’m an avid birder and lister. But, even when I’m chasing rarities, or a new life bird and am happy just to have gotten a glimpse of it, being able to watch that bird do something makes the whole experience so much more fun, so much more satisfying for me. I’ve been fortunate that I have been able to spend a significant portion of my life doing just that, watching birds do stuff. As an ornithologist and behavioral ecologist, I’ve done of lot of research on bird behavior, and I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours watching one of the most common birds on the continent, the American Crow. I never get tired of it, and I see new things all the time. And, I’ve learned a lot about bird behavior and how to watch it, too.

I’ve become a trained observer and can pick up on little nuances of behavior that are key for understanding what’s happening. And, importantly, what’s about to happen. In this course, I want to share some of the insights I’ve discovered over the years. I’d like to help you approach watching bird behavior with some key ideas in mind that can make watching birds more fun and rewarding. Birds communicate in some subtle and some not so subtle ways.

I want to introduce you to some of the understated ways they talk, and show you that even small gestures can have big meaning. You’ll learn the types of things birds talk about, how you can read their body language to understand who is saying what to whom. Learning what to see is important, but understanding how to interpret what you see is important too. Birds aren’t people, and they don’t have the same needs and motivations that we do. So, what do they need, what do birds want?

This course is designed to give you an introduction into the ways birds behave and communicate. It will help you understand how to interpret some kinds of signals that cut across species’ lines. It’ll also help you learn how to interpret what you see, both by helping you structure your observations and conclusions, and by helping you understand the important forces shaping bird behavior.

It’s full of videos, images, and self quizzes to help you practice what you learn. It’s meant to be a reference guide that you can return to over and over. And, it’s meant to be fun. I hope you enjoy it.
End of transcript

Preview Your Behavior Interpretation Toolbox

With the framework and practice this course gives you, you’ll be able to confidently interpret new bird behaviors when you see them and your birdwatching will become all the more interesting.

Preview the Toolbox

Course Overview

Lesson 1: Get to Know Bird Behavior

Explore the world of bird behavior with curated videos from celebrated wildlife videographers showcasing hundreds of short behavioral clips of birds from your backyard and around the world. You’ll get to know the spectrum of what birds do and learn to narrow down what’s happening when you encounter something new.

Lesson 2: How Birds Communicate

Train yourself to notice nuance and read bird body language. It’s easy to miss courtship displays and everyday power plays, but once you know what to look for, it’s like learning a new language and suddenly understanding the conversations taking place around you.

Lesson 3: How to Describe Bird Behavior

Practice describing mystery behavioral interactions. Get tips on structuring your observations and recognizing when you are making assumptions.

Lesson 4: Studying Both “How” and “Why” Questions

Learn how to get a deeper understanding of the many exciting dimensions of animal behavior by asking “how” and “why” questions. Explore case studies on Red-winged Blackbird displays, bird emotions, and bird play behaviors.

Lesson 5: An Ecological Perspective on Behavior

Make decisions from the perspective of a Red-winged Blackbird pair during breeding season and experience just how challenging life can be for a bird. Then explore how varying environmental conditions have led to a diversity of survival strategies.

Lesson 6: Your Behavior Identification Toolbox

Review the skills you developed in this course so you can put them to use the next time you see a new behavior. Then practice with Mystery Behavior Challenges—a chance to apply what you’ve learned to some amazing field footage.

All the material is available through your web browser. No downloads are required and nothing is shipped. For your convenience, the course is designed to work on all modern web browsers and devices. Access does not expire.

Included for Free: Birds of North America Online

Birds of North America WebsiteBirds of North America is the authoritative source for in-depth behavioral information on the 760 bird species that breed in the United States and Canada. With this course, you’ll receive free access for three months, a $15.00 value, to this dynamic digital resource full of sounds, images, videos, and range maps. Birds of North America is a great companion as you delve into the behaviors of your favorite species.

Understand birds in a whole new way!

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Satisfaction Guarantee

Our educators and birding experts take pride in the courses they create. If you're not satisfied with the material for ANY reason, contact us within 30 days of the start of the course or purchase for a full refund.

Meet the Course Author and Instructor

Dr. Kevin McGowan

Kevin McGowanCourse instructor Kevin McGowan combines deep knowledge about birds with a passion for helping others learn. He is a professional ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and one of the world’s foremost experts on the behavior of crows. Kevin is also an accomplished birder and World Series of Birding champion. Among his contributions to Bird Academy, he created the popular Be a Better Birder series of courses and live webinars and co-authored the university-level Ornithology: Comprehensive Bird Biology course.

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Course author and instructor: Kevin McGowan
Instructional design: Mya Thompson, Jeff Szuc, Colleen McLinn
Video production and editing: Shayna Muller
Web design: Jeff Szuc
Applications programmer: Noah Warnke
Text editing: Noah Warnke
Science advisors: Anne Clark, Judith Scarl, Steve Kress, Jay McGowan

Welcome Video Credits
Redhead, Chris Wood/Macaulay Library 514833
Least Auklet, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cliff Swallow, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Snow Bunting, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Galapagos Penguin, RickRay/Shutterstock
Royal Tern, Benjamin Clock/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Anianiau, Benjamin Clock/Macaulay Library 485737
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Red-necked Phalarope, Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Northern Cardinal, Matthew D. Medler/Macaulay Library 476180
Great Blue Heron, Eric Liner/Macaulay Library 435241
Blue and Yellow Macaw, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Pacific Golden-Plover, Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Royal Tern, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sharp-tailed Grouse, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Blue-black Grassquit, Andrew Dreelin/Macaulay Library 516756
Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise, Tim Laman/Macaulay Library 487538
Reddish Egret, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Least Auklet, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Yellow Warbler, Eric Liner/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Laysan Albatross, Benjamin Clock/Macaulay Library 485888
White-throated Sparrow, Matthew D. Medler/Macaulay Library 475321
White-breasted Nuthatch, Jay W. McGowan/Macaulay Library 471331
Red Phalarope, Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

What to Expect Video Credits
Cinematography, Karen Rodriguez
Herring Gull, Kevin McGowan
Mallard, Jay W. McGowan/Macaulay Library 479855
Greater Sage-Grouse, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Feruginous Hawk, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Ovenbird, Jay W. McGowan/Macaulay Library 471329
Reddish Egret, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Song Sparrow, Jay McGowan/Macaulay Library 483681

Photo credits
Male Northern Cardinals, Jesse Nguyen via Shutterstock