[Inside Birding] [Jessie] 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. — [Chris] Oh, cool, there’s a Palm Warbler just below the Yellow-rump. See, it’s flicking its tail. — [Jessie] Oh, yeah. — [Chris] 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. — [Jessie] 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. — [Chris] 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. — [Jessie] First, let’s take a look at posture. A bird’s posture can be broken down by asking two simple questions: where and how. [POSTURE Observation 1: Where] “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. [POSTURE Observation 2: How] 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. — [Chris] 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. — [Jessie] 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? [FORAGE Observation 1: Where] 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. [FORAGE Observation 2: How] 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. [FORAGE Observation 3: What] 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. — [Chris] 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. [FLIGHT STYLE Observations: Wing Beats, 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. — [Jessie] Brown Pelicans going over the crest of the sea break. About 35 or so… — [Chris] See the Royal Terns on the beach? — [Jessie] 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. — [Chris] 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. — [Jessie] 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? — [Chris] Oh, I got it. [Inside Birding]End of transcript
Inside Birding: Understanding Behavior
Recognizing behavioral clues is a key component of bird identification. Improve your identification skills by joining Chris Wood and Jessie Barry as they examine posture, foraging behavior, and flight style.
This video is part of our 4-part Inside Birding series. Each roughly 10-minute video guides you through the 4 basic keys to bird identification with clear instruction and examples. The four videos in the series are:
Inside Birding: Size & Shape
Inside Birding: Color Pattern
Inside Birding: Understanding Behavior
Inside Birding: Habitat
For more on the 4 keys of bird ID, see our Bird ID Skills pages on All About Birds.
Would you like to learn more about using birds’ behavior to identify more birds in your area? Bird Academy’s online courses let enthusiasts of all levels learn at their own pace. You can browse our course catalog to find the perfect online learning resource for yourself. Be a better birder today: View course catalog