[Inside Birding] [Chris] Birders are like detectives searching for clues to allow them to narrow in on a group of suspects. The more evidence they can assemble, the better chance they have of positively identifying the culprit. — [Jessie] When identifying birds experts use the four keys to ID as our main body of evidence. If they can put these clues together they can can positively identify their bird. — [Chris] On this episode of Inside Birding, we’re going to show you how to use one of the most frequently overlooked keys to ID: habitat. — [Jessie] Over millennia birds have evolved unique physical adaptations that best suit the habitat they live in. These habitats represent everything a bird needs to eat, reproduce, protect itself from predators, and generally survive. — [Chris] I like to think that habitat is as much a signature of a bird’s identity as its color pattern, behavior, or song. Living around an aquatic habitat like this is as much about being a heron as living in a field is to being a meadowlark. Learning to understand and read habitats is key to becoming a better birder. Before we can start putting habitat clues to work for us, we need to become familiar with the different type of habitats where birds live. Habitats can be broken down into four very general categories. [Forested Habitats] These are: forested or woodland habitats which can be either coniferous or deciduous. [Aquatic Habitats] Water or aquatic habitats which include lakes and ponds, swamps and marshes, open ocean and shoreline. [Scrub Shrub Habitats] Scrub Shrub Habitats which can be recognized by short woody plants and bushes. [Open Habitats] And finally, Open Habitats like grasslands, agricultural fields, and tundra. — [Chris] It’s helpful to think of the four keys to identification: size and shape, overall color pattern, behavior, and habitat as an ordered process for identification. They’re the steps we take that allow us to accurately identify birds, but unlike with the other three keys, habitat is something we consider twice when we’re out birding. it’s both the first and the last questions we ask ourselves. — [Jessie] So it’s mid january and we’re down in Florida at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a beautiful piece of habitat. You can see we’ve got some nice tall cyprus behind us, vast wetlands out in front with some open water and emergent vegetation like cattails and rushes. Looks like a good place to find Little Blue Heron, Common Moorhen, maybe an Anhinga, but if we’re really lucky we might get a shot at seeing the elusive Limpkin. Man, check out this habitat! — [Chris] That is a Great Blue Heron. There are a lot of Yellow-rumped warblers calling over here. — [Jessie] Check out this male Anhinga. This is a perfect spot for Anhinga; all these shallow wetlands. There must be tons of fish here for this for this bird. Swampy shallows like this area are perfect habitat for Little blues to forage in. — [Chris] Oh wow! Look at that. It just snagged a little fish! Great egret, right here. — [Jessie] It’s so cool like when they’re foraging they just so still. Really different approach from the Tricolored heron, a Reddish egret–a really active feeder. — [Chris] Yeah, these birds love to stalk through reedy shallows like this looking for fish. — [Jessie] Cool! — [Chris] Very nice! Let’s go find that Limpkin. Yeah! Looks like to be a good spot for a roosting Limpkin. — [Jessie] Oh, check it out Apple snails! These are the favorite food of the Limpkin. Look how big they are. Man, that’s gotta be something juicy. You know he’s gotta be around somewhere! — [Chris] Oh look! There it is! — [Jessie] Alright. So let’s go over size and shape first. It’s definitely bigger than a Glossy Ibis, smaller than Wood stork, it’s kind of shaped like an overgrown rail and it’s got this nice long bill with a slight curve. — [Chris] Yeah it’s brown overall. See those white speckles and spots on the upper parts? Ok, there it goes keep an eye on it! I don’t think it’s going too far. Oh! Look right there. — [Jessie] Ok, so this is a classic behavioral clue. The bird skulking around, using that long bill to probe in muck– probably foraging for apple snails. — [Chris] All right we’ve got this bird in our sights. We’ve gone over size and shape, color pattern and behavior, and we can be pretty sure from those that this bird is a Limpkin, but before we’re totally certain we need to re-ask ourselves the habitat question. What are the chances that this bird could be occurring in this habitat? — [Jessie] But we can’t leave out an important consideration– birds migrate and this can influence the type of habitat we find them in so we also need to consider time of year and habitat question by asking: could a Limpkin actually be in this habitat in mid-January? In this case, the answer is yes! We’ve got a Linmpkin! — [Chris] When we’re out birding we always rely on our observations of habitat to help us confirm the identities of the birds we see. — [Jessie] So to recap, the first thing you want to do when you arrive at a location is identify the type of habitat you’re in and ask yourself what species of birds are you likely to find there. Then once you’ve spotted a bird spend time observing it using the first three keys to ID: size and shape, color pattern, behavior, and finally, reconsider the habitat question by asking could the species of bird I think I’m seeing actually occur in this habitat at this time of year? — [Chris] Remember the four keys to identification aren’t about memorization. They’re about observation. And the more time you spend in the field watching, the more you’ll find your ID skills improving. — [Jessie] Each time you’re out in the field, you’re presented with a variety of clues. Sometimes you just need to slow down in order to see them more clearly. So get out there, watch closely, and take your birding to the next level. [Inside Birding]End of transcript
A bird’s habitat is often a signature of its identity. For example, you’ll usually find herons near water and you can expect to find meadowlarks in open fields. There are four broad categories of habitat: (1) woodland habitats—coniferous or deciduous trees; (2) aquatic habitats—lakes, ponds, swamps, marshes, oceans, and shorelines; (3) scrub-shrub habitats—short woody plants and bushes; and (4) open habitats—grasslands, agricultural fields, and tundra. Once you learn what kinds of birds depend on each habitat you have a quick tool to help you identify birds in the field. Join Chris Wood and Jessie Barry as they explain how being aware of habitat cues can make you a better birder.
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:
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 how understanding habitat can help you 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