Bird’s eye view: identification and behavior

Published 2:00 pm Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Often I get queries about what kind of bird someone saw and then that person describes some attribute he or she remembered of the bird such as color. I do the best I can to help identify the bird based on usually very limited factors.  And this is where knowing bird behavior is a big help.
Northern Mockingbirds always behave like Northern Mockingbirds.  Blue Jays will always behave like Blue Jays. The same can be said for all species of birds with very few exceptions. Perhaps you have a feeder where you can observe birds. Have you ever noticed that the diminutive Carolina Chickadee will always zip in to the feeder, grab a seed then fly off to a tree or shrub to eat? On the other hand, Northern Cardinals will fly onto a feeder, sit and eat seed after seed until satisfied. The reason the chickadee flies off to eat yet the cardinal eats to his hear’s content on the feeder is that’s the way these two species behave. If you take the time to understand bird behavior often you can arrive at what species the bird is with just a causal glance.
Observing a bird’s flight style, posture and foraging behavior, things birds do every day, makes identifying a bird much easier. For example woodpeckers always utilize an undulating flight style of flap, flap, glide, flap, flap, glide. Male Indigo Buntings will sing and perch in an upright position from perches at forest edges. And flycatchers usually forage by sitting on an exposed perch, sallying out to snatch an unsuspecting insect on the wing then return to the perch. It’s all in how these birds behave.
Another key to identifying birds is beak size and shape. Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks as well as Northern Cardinals have thick, heavy-set beaks used for opening/crushing seeds. White Ibis have long, thin, decurved beaks they probe deep into mud for prey items. And warblers, with their seemingly hyper-active movements, have thinly pointed beaks used for catching small insects and caterpillars.
“There are some yellow birds in my yard,” exclaimed the caller on Sunday, April 3. “What are they?”
Without being there to see for myself I began to ask questions much like a mechanic might diagnose an engine problem. How big are the birds? Where are the birds? What are they doing? In this case the caller said they were eating bird food he had scattered on the ground. Bingo, I had the answer! The small, sparrow-sized bird was in the caller’s backyard feeding on sunflower seeds. American Goldfinch was the mystery bird. I was able to eliminate other yellow birds normally found in this area of Georgia with these clues and the benefit of years of experience.
Early spring is a particularly good time to observe bird behavior. As of this writing, April 12, I know of eight different species of birds nesting in my yard. There may be others I haven’t discovered yet. I find it interesting to observe nest building behavior, brooding of altricial young and feeding newborn babies.
Take some time to enjoy birds in your yard. You just might learn something from them.

Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.