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Nature in it's glory

Nature in it's glory

Jul 21, 2011

The importance of learning about bird behavior

Northern Flicker
Blue Heron Cooling itself off

The only woodpecker that I have ever seen perched at the top of a tree is the Northern Flicker on the left.   More unusual still, is the behavior of the Blue Heron below, who is cooling himself in a very comical manner.  These two behaviors stand out in my memory, because they are not typical to all bird species.

These are just two examples to show that the behaviors a bird exhibits are of utmost importance to bird identification, since behavioral patterns are often exclusive to specific birds or bird species.   It is extremely useful therefore, to learn as much about the behavior of the various bird species as possible.  Keeping in mind that sometimes the behavior that a bird does not exhibit will help to rule out several birds, or bird species it might otherwise belong to.

American Robin
Some behaviors to watch for 

How and where does a bird perch?
Some birds, like the Robin, love to perch at the very top of a tree.  The Chippin Sparrow, on the other hand, prefers to perch low to the ground, unless he is courting in which case you will see the male at about mid-height of a tree when in song.  Some birds however rarely, if ever, perch out in the open.

Dark eyed Junco
How and where does a bird forage for food?
You are likely to see flycatchers flitting from branch to branch in bushes and at any level in a tree, but birds such as the Dark eyed Junco and the Baird's sparrow, are more comfortable foraging on the ground or in low bush.   The Cooper's hawk prefers to hunt in forest, while the Northern Harrier prefers to hunt just above the ground over the open field of a meadow, field or marsh.

Red winged blackbird harassing Crow
How does a bird react when threatened,  frightened or defending their young?
Unlike other ducks, the Golden eye Duck does not fly off when startled, instead it dives beneath the water.  Geese will hiss and so will Mallard ducks, especially if it is a female with ducklings.  The Red winged Blackbird however, shown above, will dive at and harass a crow or hawk, for example, to drive it off.

Swainson's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
What is the typical flight pattern of the bird you are observing?
It is safe to say that Eagles and most Hawks ride the thermals in the sky in a distinct circular pattern.  However you are unlikely to see the Cooper's hawk and Goshawk doing so, except during migration.  They are not very comfortable in the open sky being forest hawks, and so, their flight pattern outside the forest consists of several quick flaps of their wings, followed by a glide. 

American Redstart flicking his wings
 Does the bird have a nervous habit ?
A Robin holds itself stiff winged and upright while foraging on the ground or any time it doesn't feel quite safe. The Yellow rumped warbler and American Redstart both flick their wings.  Ducks and Geese will bob their heads, by first stretching their neck as far as it will go and then pulling it  down again, as if they are trying to see over the top of something.

House Wren
White Breasted Nuthatch

Does the bird have a habitual posture or any other exclusive behavior?
A good example here, for habitual posture, is the wren, who holds it's tail straight up.  This is something all wren species do.  An exclusive behavior, that all nuthatches exhibit, is walking down a tree trunk head first, or along the underside of a branch, thus making a mockery of gravity.

Bohemian Waxwings just a small part of the flock
Is the bird typically a loner, or a social butterfly?
It is extremely rare that you will see an owl in company of other owls, unless of course the owl is paired.  The same cannot be said for the Bohemian waxwing, who is rarely seen alone.  In fact, you are most likely to see this waxwing in a flock of more than a dozen of it's kind. 

To find the answers to these questions, as well as others, the best and most enjoyable way to learn about bird behavior is by observing a bird species directly.  There is a lot you can learn about a bird given even a few minutes.  Just relax and watch the bird for as long as it stays in view.  Do this often, and you will soon connect certain behaviors with specific birds or bird species, and bird identification becomes much easier.



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