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Nature in it's glory

Nature in it's glory

Mar 12, 2011

Five reliable observations to help identify birds

Some birds such as Blue Jays, are easily identified, especially if they are native to your area, abundant in numbers or brightly colored.  Sometimes however, it isn't quite that easy.  So here are five helpful ways to identify birds which are unfamiliar to you.

House Wren
Red Tailed Hawk

 A bird's posture can help you eliminate, or confirm which bird or bird species you are looking at, as posture can be characteristic to a bird species in general or just to a specific bird.  It can be very distinct, and is sometimes directly related to the body shape of the bird.

The grebe for example stands a certain way, as its legs are placed far back underneath it to better help him propel himself under water, therefore it's posture on land would be different from that of a shorebird.   All wrens, as seen above, can be identified by the fact that they typically hold their tails stiffly upwards.   Raptors, on the other hand, can be recognized just by the way they angle their head, while Robins hold their wings stiffly to the side, with the point aimed at the ground rather than folded next to the tail.
White Breasted Nuthatch
Northern Flicker and Cedar waxwing

Posture is also linked to activity.  For example a hawk set to swoop off a branch to go after prey will lean slightly forward and be seen intently watching something below it.  A nuthatch walking down a tree head first often holds it's head straight up, with it's bill pointing upward, as it watches for predators.  A woodpecker holds its tail straight against a tree and it's head stiffly back to look for food in the cracks and crevices of the bark, because it uses it's tail to maintain it's balance on the trunk. 

The second thing to watch for to help you identify a bird is it's behavior.  Flycatchers flick their tails to startle insects into flight, are typically hyper active or can be seen peering beneath branches and leaves.  The Northern Harrier, unlike other hawks, can be observed flying back and forth just above a field.  King Fishers can be seen hovering over, or diving into the water after fish.  There are some birds, like the Hermit Thrush, who  prefer to stay on or near the ground, and under cover, while others fly in  flocks, both large and small, in the open sky.   Some birds  have a tendency to perch at the very top of a tree like the house finch, Robin, and the Bohemian Waxwing, while some prefer to stay somewhere in the middle like most flycatchers, Owls and the Cooper's Hawk.
Hermit Thrush

Cooper's Hawk
The eating habits of a bird can also tell you a lot about the species of bird you are looking at.   Although many birds eat a variety of foods, some prefer one food type over others.  Sometimes the food a bird prefers is even related to the time of year.  For example waxwings prefer to eat fruit and the White winged Crossbill prefers to eat the seeds of pine cones.   Blue Jays love hazelnuts.  The Swainson's hawk is also known as the Grasshopper hawk because it feeds mostly on grasshoppers during non breeding season, but relies heavily on gophers and mice as a food source during the breeding season.
A Flycatcher searching for insects

Bohemian Waxwing

A bird's natural Habitat will give you yet another a clue as to it's identity.   Some bird species prefer mixed forest and others prefer Pine, or Boreal forest.   There are birds that only live on, or near wetlands or mountains, preferring either water or higher elevations and cooler temperatures.

However, a bird's habitat can be much smaller than a forest or a mountain top.  For some birds, like the Blackbird, it doesn't matter if there is a large forest, so long as there is water nearby, be it a creek, river or pond, even if it is man made.  In fact, some species of waterfowl wont nest near water where there isn't a tree close by, and some birds wont make their home if there isn't a clearing , field or open grassland somewhere in the vicinity.
Merlin perched
Merlin and Magpie

Finally there is a bird's size and shape.  While there is an average size range for most bird species, never think that because a bird is too small, that it cannot be a hawk.  A Merlin for example is a small member of the hawk family that isn't much bigger than a Robin or Blue Jay.  So if you see a bird that you think might be a hawk, it is likely because of the bird's shape.

Merlins are much heavier in the body than a Robin would be, but slimmer than a Magpie.  Their tail is somewhat longer than a Robin's and their bill is curved, which gives them a different shape from that of a Robin.  The same holds true for a Prairie Hawk, which is almost the size of a Crow.  Just above is a picture that I have obviously modified somewhat, which provides a perfect example of size and shape. 

 If you observe closely, combine what you observe about a bird on your bird watch, with the bird you see in front of you, it is very likely that you will be able identify that bird.



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