How to Identify Backyard Birds: Part 4

Do you have friends or relatives that you know so well, that you can recognize them by the way they walk?  Or maybe you can almost predict their actions at times because you know how they usually behave in certain situations.  This connection between familiarity and behavior also exists in the bird world.  I know some birds so well, that I can predict how much fudge they will eat on a Tuesday night.  In all seriousness, which is hard for me because I like to be humorous and silly, many birds have habits or behaviors that can aid you in identification. A few years ago, I spent a summer chasing around shorebirds along beaches throughout the Gulf Coast.  Wilson’s Plovers were the focal birds for the surveys I participated in and I got so familiar with their characteristic behavior that I could often pick them out well before I could see them clearly with my binoculars.  Usually a Wilson’s Plover would fly into view and land on the sand ahead of where I was walking.  Then he or she would lean forward and run a little, then stop, then run again.  Many plovers exhibit this particular trait but I was able to hone in on Wilson’s Plovers due to my understanding of their behavior.  I would also sometimes hear a little “Whip” call, which Wilson’s Plovers are known for.

28579_134599496550813_122922374385192_370216_5224199_n (Wilson’s Plover by Margo Zdravkovic)

So what are some behavioral traits that can help you predict your best friend’s actions identify backyards birds?  Let me begin by looking at a family of birds.  Sparrows are familiar to many people and are often overlooked because of their generally plain appearance.  Sparrows can actually be quite interesting to watch.  They like to spend a lot of time on the ground foraging for food.  In fact, sparrows almost never visit hanging feeders and usually prefer to find insects or eat seed on the ground.  Even when there is no seed on the ground in my yard, the song and white-throated sparrows will hop along on the ground in search of food instead of eating the free seed at the hanging feeder.  I mean, DUDE, IT’S AN EASY MEAL!  WAKE UP AND EAT THE SEED YOU SILLY GROUND DWELLERS!  They never listen to me.  Anyway, sparrows like the ground and will use their feet to scratch at the dirt in an attempt to acquire tasty insects.  They also use their head and bill to flip up leaves.  So if you see a small brown bird, hanging out on the grass, scratching with its feet and flipping its head, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a sparrow.  Obviously, behavior alone isn’t going to be enough to identify a bird usually, but it certainly can be a valuable aid.  By the way, song sparrows are excellent singers.  There’s a male that hangs around my yard all year long and comes out to sing in the spring.  He also likes to hide in the bushes and chirp at me.

Adult eastern form (Song Sparrow picture from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Woodpeckers are another group of birds which are marked by particular behavioral traits.  Most woodpeckers shuffle up and down tree trunks hunting for food.  There aren’t many birds that do this which helps narrow the field.  Also, if you hear a bird making a drumming noise, you’re likely listening to a woodpecker announce its presence.  Sometimes they do this to mark territory and sometimes they use it in communication.  Creepers and Nuthatches also like to shimmy up and down trees, but their coloring easily distinguishes them from woodpeckers.  I really like birds that go head first down tree trunks!  Here are a few pictures to illustrate these cool birds.

AdultAdult female

(Left – Brown Creeper, Right – White-breasted Nuthatch from the Cornell Lab)

I will get back to talking about woodpeckers, but first I want tell you about nuthatches for a moment.  Nuthatch have a raspy call that’s actually kind of cute.  They call out to each other while dancing on tree trunks and are fun to watch.  They can also be quite curious and will sometimes venture very close to humans.  Now back to the woodpeckers.  As I mentioned, woodpeckers enjoy spending time in the trees.  There is a species, however, that prefers the ground.  The Northern Flicker is a large woodpecker that hunts for ants and other insects along the ground.  If you’re experienced in identifying birds, you’ll have no problem picking out a flicker.  But let’s say you’re fairly new to the birding world, and you see a robin-sized bird pecking at the ground.  Being able to discern that the bird is hunting for insects would be a great aid in identification.  An interesting fact about the Northern Flicker is that there are two variations in the U.S.  The red-shafted is found in the west and the yellow-shafted is in the east.  This refers to the color of the wings shafts which are visible in flight.  Also, males have black mustaches.

Adult female Yellow-shaftedAdult male Yellow-shafted

(Female on the left, male with mustache on the right. Pictures from Cornell Lab)

As you can see, understanding behavior can be helpful in bird identification.  Mostly, it can help you narrow down the choices or determine what family group the bird you’re looking at belongs to.  Now it’s time to examine the importance of habitat.  Because I love to eat ice cream, a great place to find me would be at a creamery.  The same is true for birds.  Not the ice cream part, most birds prefer cobbler.  Many birds can be found in certain habitats and this knowledge can be very powerful if you have a desire to see a specific bird in the wild.  For example, the best place to find sandpipers is on a beach by the ocean.  Woodpeckers are often found around trees.  Herons enjoying fishing in lakes, ponds and rivers.  Looking for a Rock Pigeon?  Take a walk downtown and sit on the white-spotted benches.  If you see an unfamiliar bird, take note of the habitat.  If you combine habitat with behavior, you can really narrow down the options for the identity of a bird.  Let’s say you’re walking along the beach and you notice a small bird scurrying back and forth with the tide.  You’re probably looking at a sandpiper or plover.  See a small bird in the woods that seemingly can’t sit still and flies quickly from tree to tree before returning to its perch?  You might be observing a flycatcher.

Now to focus on the topics you’ve really been waiting for.  First of all, could Wile E Coyote ever catch the Roadrunner?  The Greater Roadrunner is actually a member of the cuckoo family and grows to a length of about 2 feet.  Generally found in southwestern deserts, roadrunners are able to run up to about 20 miles per hour and spend most of their time on the ground.  Coyotes, on the other hand, can reach speeds of over 40 miles per hour!  This means that Wile E Coyote is about twice as fast the Roadrunner!  I guess the beep, beep throws the coyote off?  Or maybe the Roadrunner is just smarter, which is hard to believe because Wile E is a genius.  Anyway, roadrunners like to eat poisonous creatures,  such as scorpions and horned lizards!  They also enjoy eating tasty treats such as centipedes, eggs and frogs.  Occasionally, a pair of roadrunners will team up to take down a rattlesnake!

Who is the greatest cartoon bird of all time?  Let’s take a look at the leading candidates.  The Roadrunner of course, makes the final cut.  Daffy Duck, Donald Duck and Woody Woodpecker would also make my list.  You could make an argument for Tweety, but I’m going to just give him an honorable mention.  Daffy is definitely the most talkative, but he allows himself to be manipulated too often by Bugs Bunny.  Woody Woodpecker has a great laugh and Donald can be fun, but my favorite bird is the one who doesn’t talk.  The bird whose antics bring back memories of one of my favorite cartoon series.  Roadrunner is quick, intelligent and he doesn’t fall for Wile E Coyote’s traps.  Speaking of the coyote, did you ever think about where he got all his money from?  How could he afford to buy so many new ACME products?  I think I’ll go back in time and buy stock in ACME.

Hopefully you’ve learned something from my blog series on identifying birds.  Have fun finding new birds and observing their behavior!  Now I’m going to play some Angry Birds Star Wars.  May your plans be more successful than Wile E Coyote’s!

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