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Bird ID Skills

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Behavior

There’s what birds wear, and then there’s how they wear it.
A bird’s attitude goes a long way in identification.

Bird species don’t just look unique, they have unique ways of acting, moving, sitting, and flying. When you learn these habits, you can recognize many birds the same way you notice a friend walking through a crowd of strangers.

Chances are, you’ll never see a Cedar Waxwing poking through the underbrush for seeds – or a Wood Thrush zigzagging over a summer pond catching insects. But similar-sized birds such as towhees and swallows do this all the time. Behavior is one key way these birds differ.

Because so much of a bird’s identity is evident in how it acts, behavior can lead you to an ID in the blink of an eye, in bad light, or from a quarter-mile away. Before you even pick up your binoculars, notice how your bird is sitting, how it’s feeding or moving, whether it’s in a flock, and if it has any nervous habits like flicking its wings or bobbing its tail.

And remember that to get good at recognizing birds by their behavior, you must spend time watching them. It’s tempting to put down your binoculars and grab your field guide as soon as you see a field mark. Or, after identifying a common bird, you might feel rushed to move on and find something more unusual. Resist these urges. Relax, and watch the bird for as long as it will let you. This is how you become used to the way a bird acts, how you discover it doing something new – and let’s face it, it’s probably why you went out bird watching in the first place.

Posture

The most basic aspect of behavior is posture, or how a bird presents itself. You can learn to distinguish many similarly proportioned birds just from the poses they assume. It’s a skill that includes recognizing a bird’s size and shape, and adds in the impression of the bird’s habits and attitude.

  • Oriole

    Oriole

    Long, slender birds that tend to perch horizontally.

  • Mallard

    Mallard

    Dabbling ducks like the Mallard are plump, long-necked, and tilted slightly forward on the water.

  • House Sparrow

    House Sparrow

    Large-headed and plump, often hunched over crumbs or watching out for cats and shopkeepers.

  • Mourning Dove

    Mourning Dove

    Tiny-headed, slender-tailed, mild mannered but explosive in flight.

  • European Starling

    European Starling

    Squat and sharp-headed, with a long bill and an impatient way of moving.

  • American Robin

    American Robin

    Sturdy, strong-framed, and sure of itself.

  • Rock Pigeon

    Rock Pigeon

    Plump and slightly pot-bellied. Putters around on sidewalks but races through the air.

  • American Crow

    American Crow

    Alert, inquisitive, and poised for action or opportunity.

  • Cedar Waxwing

    Cedar Waxwing

    Stocky but sleek, flat-crested and square-tailed, excitable and gregarious.

  • Killdeer

    Killdeer

    Long-legged, large-headed, slender-tailed and plump.

  • House Finch

    House Finch

    A flat-headed finch with a thick beak that it's not afraid to use on your sunflower seeds.

  • Brown-headed Cowbird

    Brown-headed Cowbird

    A short-proportioned blackbird with a quiet, observant manner. Females spend summers on the lookout for other birds' nests.

  • Barn Swallow

    Barn Swallow

    Long-winged, long-tailed, and masterful in the air. Swallows' wings are broader and more triangular than swifts' wings.

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    Kingbird

    The heftiest and most tyrannical of the "tyrant flycatchers." Erect, thick-headed, with a broad, flat bill.

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    Meadowlark

    Plump, with long, straight bill and short tail. A musical bird of grasslands and fenceposts.

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    Mockingbird

    A flashy bird with a fairly small head outweighed by a long tail.

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    Shrike

    A hunched-over, bull-headed bird with a thick, hooked beak.

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    Woodpecker

    Typically canted back from a tree trunk, leaning against its tail feathers, long beak aimed at the bark.

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    Quail

    Short-legged, round birds with short necks and small heads, typically seen in large groups on the ground.

For example, in fall the small, drab green Pine Warbler looks similar to the Acadian Flycatcher, right down to the two wingbars and the straight bill. But you’re unlikely to confuse the two because their postures are so different. Pine Warblers hold their bodies horizontally and often seem to crouch. Flycatchers sit straight up and down, staying on alert for passing insects.

Horizontal versus vertical posture is the first step. Next, get an impression of the bird: Does it seem inquisitive like a chickadee or placid, like a thrush? Does it lean forward, ready for mischief, like a crow? Or is it assertive and stiff, like a robin? Do the bird’s eyes dart around after targets, like a flycatcher – or methodically scan the foliage like a vireo? Is the bird constantly on alert, like a finch in the open? Nervous and skittish like a kinglet?

Movement

As soon as a sitting bird starts to move, it gives you a new set of clues about what it is. You’ll see not only different parts of the bird and new postures, but you’ll also sense more of the bird’s attitude through the rhythm of its movements. There’s a huge difference between the bold way a robin bounces up to a perch, a mockingbird’s showy, fluttering arrival, and the meekness of a towhee skulking around.

  • Short-eared Owls fly with stiff, mothlike wingbeats as they course low over marshy vegetation searching for prey.

     
  • Arctic Terns, like most terns, are graceful, willowy seabirds with long, slim wings and incredible flying finesse.

     
  • Warblers like this Prothonotary Warbler forage with quick, darting movements, rarely sitting still for long.

     
  • Great Blue Herons have immense, broad wings, and they flap more slowly than almost any other bird.

     
  • Northern Goshawks and other accipiters take a few wingbeats and then glide on their short wings and long tail.

     
  • Two Rock Ptarmigan, having a spring battle over territory, demonstrate how quickly quail and grouse can run on their short legs.

     

You can also tell a lot from the way the bird moves: notice whether it hops, like many sparrows, or walks like a pipit; whether it always hitches upward like a woodpecker or scurries around like a nuthatch seemingly unaware of gravity.

On the water, some ducks, such as Mallard and Northern Pintail, tip up (or “dabble”) to reach submerged vegetation. Others, including scaup and Redhead, disappear from view as they dive for shellfish and other prey. Among the divers, you’ll notice that some species, such as eiders, open their wings just before they dive. These ducks flap their wings for propulsion underwater, and they almost always begin a dive this way.

Flight Pattern

Certain birds have flight patterns that give them away. Almost nothing flaps as slowly as a Great Blue Heron – you can see this from miles away. Learn the long swooping flight of most woodpeckers and you’ll be able to pick them out before they’ve even landed.

  • Flight 1

    Crows and Ravens

    Flight style can be a great way to identify birds at a distance. Although crows and ravens look very similar, they fly quite differently. American Crows flap slowly and methodically, whereas Common Ravens take frequent breaks from flapping to soar or glide.

  • Flight 2

    Bouncing Through the Air

    In flight, finches and woodpeckers rise and fall as they intersperse flapping with gliding. For the tiny finches, this causes them to bounce sharply upwards giving their flight a livelier rhythm than the larger woodpeckers. Sparrows, wrens, and warblers, though they're similar to finches in size, typically fly in a straight and level path.

  • Flight 3

    Different Prey, Different Flight

    Accipiters like the Sharp-shinned Hawk usually fly in a straight line, flapping stiffly several times in quick succession and then gliding. Buteos fly more deliberately and often spend time soaring in circles on their long, broad wings.

  • Flight 4

    Coming at You

    You can identify several birds of prey even when all you see is a head-on view. Red-tailed Hawks (top left) hold their wings fairly level, although not as flat and heavy as the Bald Eagle (center left). Northern Harriers are buoyant in flight and hold their wings in a V. The Turkey Vulture (top right) also flies with its wings in a V, teetering uncertainly with changes in the wind. The similar Black Vulture (bottom right) has a level flight profile.

Many small birds, particularly finches, have bouncy, roller-coaster trajectories caused by fluttering their wings and then actually folding them shut for a split second. Other little birds, including wrens, warblers, and many sparrows, fly in a straight path with a blur of little wings.

Birds of prey have their own distinct styles. Red-tailed Hawks and other buteos fly with deep, regular wingbeats or soar in circles on broad wings. Accipiters like the Sharp-shinned Hawk give just a few stiff flaps and then glide. Falcons fly with powerful beats of their sharply pointed wings. The White-tailed Kite often hovers, wings beating, pointed into the wind.

Feeding Style

Much of the time that you watch birds on the move, you’ll be watching them feed, so it pays to become familiar with foraging styles. Some are obvious: the patient stalking of a heron; the continual up-and-back sprints of Sanderlings; the plunge of a kingfisher. But you can develop a surprisingly specific impression of almost any bird just from a few seconds of watching it forage.

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    Belted Kingfishers often hover high over water, wings beating and beak pointed straight down, before plunging after fish.

     
  • Red Crossbills use their remarkable bills to pry open pine cones and extract seeds other finches can't reach.

     
  • The Canvasback is a diving duck that swims using its feet. When feeding, it leaps into the water and disappears, without opening its wings.

     
  • The Northern Shoveler is a dabbling duck that tips forward to graze on submerged vegetation.

     
  • Red-breasted Mergansers live along coasts and in deep water, where they dive for fish, catching them with their long, narrow bills.

     
  • Wilson's Snipe thrust their long bills deep into the mud, then jerk their heads up and down like a sewing machine. Dowitchers feed similarly, but move their heads even more quickly and more vertically.

     
  • American Woodcocks are found in forests and old fields, probing in the leaf litter and walking with a bobbing gait.

     

For example, swallows, flycatchers, vireos, finches, and thrushes are all roughly the same size, but they feed in totally different manners. Swallows eat on the wing; flycatchers dart out from perches at flying bugs; vireos creep through leaves; finches sit still and crush seeds; and thrushes hop low to the ground eating insects and fruit.

Experts take this skill to incredible lengths – identifying distant seabirds on a choppy ocean just from the way they hold their wings, for example. But just as there are dozens of different ways for a person to eat an ear of corn, even closely related birds have developed their own telltale foraging habits. All it takes to discover them is time, practice, and your own powers of observation.

Flocking

A flock of kingfishers? A single starling all on its own? Some species seem to be born loners, and others are never found solo. Even among flocking birds, there are those content to travel in threes and fours, and others that gather by the dozens and hundreds.

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    Snow Geese

    Waterfowl tend to be gregarious, and some geese gather by the hundreds, thousands, and even millions.

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    Eastern Phoebe

    Many flycatchers sit alone on exposed perches, watching for passing insects.

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    Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starling

    Blackbirds and their relatives (including these Brown-headed Cowbird) often feed and roost in large flocks. The flocks can contain several species of blackbirds, grackles, and European Starlings, like this one at upper left.

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    Red-eyed Vireo

    Vireos are birds of leafy forest canopies. They sometimes join foraging flocks, but more often you see them alone, hopping more deliberately than warblers or chickadees. They often pause to scan the undersides of leaves for caterpillars.

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    Bonaparte's Gulls

    Gulls, like many seabirds, are fond of company, even during summer when they nest in sprawling, noisy colonies. You can often find several species in a single flock.

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    Green Heron

    Some herons gather in small numbers along estuaries and placid inlets. And they often nest in loose groups of untidy nests all built in the same few trees. But when it comes to hunting, herons stick to themselves.

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    Willow Ptarmigan

    You typically find quail and grouse, like these ptarmigans, in tight groups or coveys of one to a few dozen.

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    Belted Kingfisher

    Kingfishers patrol their stretch of river alone or in pairs, and hunt by themselves on the wing or from a perch overhanging the water.

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    White-winged Crossbills

    Finches and crossbills typically travel in flocks. They eat seeds, which can be hard to find but, once found, are plentiful. Traveling in numbers makes sense under the circumstances.

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    Solitary Sandpiper

    Not every sandpiper on its own is a Solitary Sandpiper, and you sometimes see this species in small groups. But Solitary Sandpipers don't tend to join large flocks.

A noisy group of yellow birds in a treetop is much more likely to be a flock of American Goldfinches than a group of Yellow Warblers. A visit to northern coasts in winter might net you several thousand Brant, but you’ll probably only see Harlequin Ducks by the handful. Learning the tendencies of birds to flock – and their tolerance for crowding – is one more aspect of behavior you can use.

Just remember that many species get more sociable as summer draws to a close. After nesting is over and young are feeding themselves, adults can relax and stop defending their territories. Still, some birds stay in large groups even in summer, sometimes even nesting cooperatively. Scientists have learned this often happens when a species’ food source is scattered and unpredictable, as with gulls and other seabirds, or when suitable nesting sites are hard to come by, as with many swallows.