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Bird Behavior: Identification Through Observation

May 25, 2021

When most people think about identifying birds, they think about looking at their overall appearance- their size, color, and shape. 

However, birds don’t just look unique. They also have unique behaviors. By getting to know birds by their behavior, you’ll have an easier time identifying them when it’s dark outside, or you can’t see their features for whatever reason. 

What sorts of behaviors do you need to pay attention to?

Read on to learn how to identify birds through observation. 

Related: How do Birds Provide Ecosystem Services?


One of the easiest ways to identify birds is through their movement.  As soon as a bird begins to move, it gives away a set of clues about who it really is. 

For example, robins make bold, swift movements, while mocking jays are a bit more fluttery when they move. You should also pay attention to whether or not the bird hops. If it does hop, it may be a sparrow. 

If it scurries around, it may be a nuthatch, and if it hotches upward, it may be a woodpecker. If you’re looking to identify ducks, you’ll notice that mallards and Northern Pintails tip up to reach their food. On the other hand, redheads and scaups disappear from view when they submerge into the water for shellfish and other food. Certain species of ducks, such as eiders, even open up their wings before they dive into the water. 

When you first start to observe birds, it may seem like all of their movements are the same. However, as you get to know the different species, you’ll soon realize that the seemingly minor differences in movement are actually quite significant

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Yellowbird perched on a branch

Just as you should pay attention to a bird’s movement to help identify it, so too should you pay attention to a bird’s posture

Posture refers to the way a bird presents itself, and the different poses a bird assumes can tell you a lot about who they are. For example, while the Pine Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher may look very similar at first glance, once you learn about their posture differences, you’ll never confuse the two. 

Pine Warblers tend to crouch down and hold their bodies horizontally, while Acadian Flycatchers stand straight up and down and stay alert nearly all the time in hopes of finding insects to eat. 

Once you’ve noted whether the bird has a horizontal or vertical posture, the next step is to get an overall impression of the bird. For example, if the bird seems inquisitive, it may be a chickadee. Or, if it looks like it’s leaning forward as if it’s ready for mischief, then it may be a crow. If its posture is stiff and assertive, then there’s a good chance that it’s a robin. If the bird is on constant alert, it may be a finch. 

Paying attention to these subtle differences can go a long way in identifying birds. 

Feeding Patterns 

Bird on a branch staring at fruit

As humans, some of us quickly, and some of us eat slowly. Some of us eat one item on our plate at a time, while others of us mash everything together. 

Just as humans have different eating patterns, so too do birds. For a majority of the time you’ll be watching birds, you’ll be watching them feed. For this reason, it’s essential to pay attention to their feeding patterns to help identify them.

You can get to know a lot about a bird by watching it forage for just a few seconds. For example, flycatchers, finches, swallows, and thrushes are all about the same size. However, their feeding styles are totally different. 

Flycatchers tend to jump out from their perches to catch flying bugs. Swallows eat their prey on the wing, and vireos sneak through leaves to catch their meals. On the other hand, finches sit still so they can crush seeds to eat. Thrushes are also very unique, as they hop to the ground to catch insects. 

By learning about the different feeding habits of birds, you’ll be able to identify them much more quickly. 

Are you looking to learn more about birds? If so, check out BirdBot News! 

Flying Patterns

When birds aren’t eating or looking for something to eat, they’re usually flying. Certain birds have very distinct flight patterns that give them away in a heartbeat. 

For example, Great Blue Herons flap their wings extremely slowly. Even if you’re a few miles away, you can easily notice their slower flapping motions. On the other hand, woodpeckers tend to make long, swooping motions when they fly. 

Small birds, such as finches, have bouncy flying patterns that cause their wings to flutter and fold shut for a split second. Warblers, wrens, sparrows, and other little birds fly in a straight path where you can only see a blur of their wings. 

Then, there are the birds of prey, which have their own distinct flying patterns. For example, red tail hawks have deep, irregular wingbeats when they fly. Sharp-shinned hawks give a few quick, stiff flaps before they glide through the air. 

When you’re observing birds from far away, paying attention to their flight pattern is one of the best ways to identify them

Flocking Patterns  

Last but not least, you can observe a bird’s flocking patterns to help identify it. While some bird species are born loners, others are hardly ever caught flying solo. 

For example, if you spot a noisy group of yellow birds in a treetop, they’re much more likely to be the social American Goldfinches as opposed to the independent Yellow Warblers. 

If you visit the Northern coasts during the winter months, you’ll likely see Brants by the thousands. However, you may only find Harlequin ducks flying with a handful of other mates. 

Related: BirdBot Surveys 

Bird Behavior: Conclusion 

As you can see, there are many ways to identify birds that have nothing to do with the way they look. With these bird identification tips, you should have a more fruitful bird-watching experience. 

Are you looking to make your bird-watching experience even more enjoyable? If so, check out the BirdBot Cam.