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Identifying bird behavior

In the last issue, the basics of bird identification were discussed. I explained what to look for in terms of the bird’s color; distinctive plumage markings, such as eyerings and wingbars; the shape of the bird’s wing; and how the bird flies (quick wingbeats, gliding, low to the ground, etc.) This time, identification will be examined on a more advanced level. The behavioral side of bird identification will be explained.The first of these is the flight patterns. Many of the small birds fly in a pattern in which the bird dips up and down as if on a rollercoaster. This flight pattern is an undulating flight. Other birds, such as doves and waterfowl, fly in a level, fast flight. Large birds, such as hawks and vultures, often use thermals to rise high into the air, and can be frequently seen circling, while rising higher and higher. Often hawks (especially Red-Tailed Hawks) can be seen circling in pairs.Taking note of the flight pattern of a bird can sometimes be useful in identification. Also, watch for species-specific flight behavior. For example, the Northern Harrier (a type of raptor) typically slowly flies low over open grassland, tilting from side to side on wings that are held in a wide V shape. Only rarely will another species of raptor adopt this flying behavior. Do not, however, assume that a harrier will not appear flying overhead, many times an overhead harrier confused me.Another example would be the sparrows. A small brown bird scuttling from bush to bush low to the ground is probably a sparrow of some kind. Sparrows fly with an undulating flight, as do finches; yet, a finch will typically try to put distance between you and it while a sparrow’s main stratagem is to hide in the vegetation. While families may share the same flight pattern, their behavior is usually different.Another important aspect of bird identification is feeding behavior. Once again, there are generalized categories. Is the bird feeding on the ground, in the air or in the trees? As with flight, there are many species-specific feeding behaviors. For example, nearly all species of warblers feed in or around trees; yet, while the Yellow-Rumped Warbler either gleans insects off leaves or sallies out from an exposed perch to snatch insets out of midair, the Black-and-White Warbler prefers to actively scramble along tree branches and trunks to pry small insects out from bark crevices (Peterson, 2000).Further, there is a difference in the feeding behaviors of dabbling ducks, such as Mallards, and diving ducks, such as scaup (also known to hunters as Bluebills). A dabbling duck will usually submerge its head in order to eat plants off the bottom in shallow water, while diving ducks will dive completely underwater to catch fish, sometimes at great depths. There are extremely rare exceptions to the rule, and good birders are always on the alert for the unexpected.On May 28, I will be leading a birding field trip at Fountain Creek Nature Center from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. The end of May is the best time to see migrating birds. Some species expected: Western Tanager, Green-Winged Teal, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Yellow Warbler and Bullock’s Oriole. Possible species citings include: Belted Kingfisher, Lazuli Bunting, Black-Chinned Hummingbird and many more. Although this trip is free, we must allow no more than 15 participants. Please call me at (719) 749-2323 or e-mail at to reserve your space and get directions.Hopefully, you are enjoying the hobby of birding and remember: The best way to learn is to be in the field.

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