Starling Squat and sharp-headed, with a long bill and an impatient way of moving.
Crow Alert, inquisitive, and poised for action or opportunity. Illustrations by Susan Spear/John Schmitt/Cornell Lab. Previous Next
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?
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Coming at You Birds of prey are distinctive even in a head-on view. Red-tailed Hawks (top left) hold their wings level, although not as flat or heavy as a Bald Eagle (center left). Northern Harriers are buoyant and hold their wings in a V. The Turkey Vulture (top right) also shows wings in a V and teeters with changes in the wind. Black Vultures (bottom right) have a level flight profile. Illustrations by John Schmitt/Cornell Lab. Previous Next
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.
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.
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.
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.
Waterfowl tend to be gregarious, and some geese, such as these Snow Geese gather by the hundreds, thousands, and even millions. Photo by . Gerry Dewaghe via Birdshare Many flycatchers, like this Eastern Phoebe sit alone on exposed perches, watching for passing insects. Photo by . Greg Bishop via Birdshare Blackbirds and their relatives (including these Brown-headed Cowbirds) 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. Photo by . crazy9_town via Birdshare Vireos are birds of leafy forest canopies. Red-eyed Vireos 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. Photo by . cdbtx via Birdshare 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. Bonaparte's Gulls by . robinsegg via Birdshare
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. Green Heron by . quietriver250 via Birdshare
Belted Kingfishers patrol their stretch of river alone or in pairs, and hunt by themselves on the wing or from a perch overhanging the water. Photo by . Joan Gellatly via Birdshare
You typically find quail and grouse, like these Willow Ptarmigans, in tight groups or coveys of one to a few dozen. Photo by . Robert Drozda via Birdshare
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. White-winged Crossbills by . Eduardo Iñigo-Elias via Birdshare
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. Photo by . Jim Gilbert via Birdshare Previous Next
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.
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