BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Behavior

While it would be tempting – and probably more entertaining – to discuss the behavior of some birders, I doubt such an article would be all that enlightening. So, let's look at the behavior of birds instead. The idea here is that paying attention to what a bird is actually doing, and where and when it happens, can be enormously helpful when finding and identifying many species.

As experienced birders are well aware, and as some beginners may struggle to understand, correct identifications involve much more than matching the colors and patterns of a bird in the field to a picture in the book. It is very useful – even critical in many situations – to consider factors like habitat, range, season, relative abundance, and size/shape. Sorting through all this, by the way, is something that eventually comes naturally, something second-nature that seasoned observers may not consciously think about. Accordingly, if you aren't already doing so, it's high time to include bird behavior in this list of considerations.

Tail waggers

Mention the subject of bird behavior, and the first birds that might come to mind are those which characteristically wag their tails, or at least slowly pump them. Kestrels, Spotted Sandpipers, phoebes, Hermit Thrushes, pipits, Palm and other warblers are mostly familiar birds with such a curious habit that they don't take long to catch the attention of beginning birders. And this is a good thing, becoming aware that bird ID involves more than just plumage.

Eventually, the novice might even become aware of a finer point of identification-by-behavior. If you find a pipit, notice its constant tail wagging, and wonder if it might be a stray Sprague's, you'll know it's an American Pipit once you learn that the Sprague's does not pump its tail.

But there's also this unrelated tail-wagging caveat: I've seen many birders miscall a Solitary Sandpiper as a Spotted. Why? They know how the relatively widespread Spotted Sandpiper acts and assume the less familiar sandpiper (a Solitary) bobbing its tail in front of them must also be a Spotted. When in doubt, try to see the Solitary's unique tail pattern, and take note of the habitat: Spotteds prefer shorelines in more open areas; Solitarys tend to like muddy, quiet, and more wooded streams or ponds.

Be aware as well that Spotteds can stand around and bob away on rocks in rushing streams – just like dippers! I have to suspect, then, that at least some of the American Dippers reported here over the years by less experienced birders might actually refer to Spotted Sandpipers. I've seen other short-tailed, slate-gray birds also stand in rocky streams, by the way: i.e., juvenile catbirds and juvenile grackles. And lots of birds bathe, while dark ducklings plunge underwater. In other words, the American Dipper may be unique, but its behavior is not.

Nearly as familiar as tail-wagging birds are those which typically cock their tails: e.g., Ruddy Ducks and wrens. Be sure to note, however, that I often see other diving ducks (Ring-neckeds, scaup, scoters, and goldeneyes come to mind) with Ruddy-like rear-end profiles. And why they do this with their tails, I don't know. Other unrelated birds have a similar habit of elevating their tails, which can assist the ID process: Wilson's and Chestnut-sided warblers often do this, and cowbirds feeding on the ground will typically lean forward with a tails-up profile.


There's an old song lyric saying something like fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly. Indeed, what could be more characteristic about bird behavior than flight? And there are certainly numerous and useful differences in how birds fly.

Some examples: geese, pelicans, and cormorants in V-formation; the sudden twists and turns of a Long-tailed Duck flock; hump-backed loons; the rapid, direct, and un-owl-like flight of Great Horned Owls; Chimney Swifts which never seem to land; undulating woodpeckers and goldfinches; Gray Jays with unsteady, accipiter-like flaps and glides; the flapping of crows vs. the rowing strokes of ravens (and ravens often "kettle" in thermals; crows typically don't); Horned Larks and Sprague's Pipits with hesitating stair-step ascents and drop-like-a-rock descents; slow, gliding, and un-swallow-like Purple Martins; and the Eastern Meadowlark's flapping, allegedly stiffer than the Western's (so I'm told, anyway – I've yet to master this difference).

There are some catches, however, in relying too heavily on flight behavior. Years ago I saw a bird circle and fan its tail high over Hawk Ridge, acting entirely like an Anhinga. As I learned later, though, cormorants can ride thermals just like Anhingas. Most birders know that Great Blues and other herons/egrets fly with a fold in their necks, unlike the Sandhill Crane; but Great Blues often fly with a straight, outstretched neck for short distances, and thus get miscalled as cranes. The stiff, shallow flapping of Spotted Sandpipers is normally a very distinctive field mark, but occasionally and curiously a Spotted will fly by like a normal shorebird and cause confusion.

The flight style of jaegers is especially difficult to use. For one thing, darker immature gulls will aggressively chase other gulls and then appear quite jaeger-like. For another, you need to be cautious when considering flight style to specifically identify jaegers: e.g., Long-taileds and Parasitics can fly just as heavily and as slowly as any Pomarine when not in pursuit of something.

Probably no other group of birds involves flight style in ID considerations more than raptors. Along with their shape, the manner of flight of diurnal raptors (vultures included) is often more useful than plumage when identifying them.

A few less-familiar examples: Black Vultures flap more rapidly than any Turkey Vulture can; Rough-legged Hawks and Golden Eagles often flap with a quick upstroke, brief pause, and slower downstroke (reminiscent of a crane or Short-eared Owl); a Merlin's flight is typically fast, direct, and purposeful, while kestrels tend to meander more; and if a raptor pauses to catch and eat dragonflies in flight, you may well have found a Mississippi Kite – but make sure it's not a Merlin or kestrel, which can do the same thing.

But there are problems when identifying raptors by flight. For example, the oft-mentioned dihedral profile of a Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, or Swainson's Hawk is overrated: just about any buteo can soar with uptilted wings at times. Similarly, don't be surprised if that fourth-state-record Black Vulture you discover assumes a dihedral, rather than flat, wing profile (despite field-guide claims to the contrary, they do this all the time!). Don't assume a hovering raptor has to be a Rough-legged or kestrel: pretty much any raptor species can hover as it hunts. And start weaning yourself from the notion of how fast a falcon is: Peregrines, Prairies, and Gyrs will circle slowly and at leisure lots of the time as they migrate or search for prey.

Perching preferences

But birds cannot remain airborne forever, not even Chimney Swifts. Accordingly, there are some places that various species tend to favor when not in aerial mode which can assist you in locating or identifying them.

Looking for Harlequin or Long-tailed ducks on Lake Superior? Be aware that Harlequins typically and inconspicuously hug the shoreline and offshore rocks; conversely, Long-taileds are usually far from shore (and notice how those in a flock tend to dive and surface simultaneously). If looking for a Gyrfalcon, I'd cover locales frequented by waterfowl, gallinaceous birds, or pigeons (i.e., their favored prey).

Good luck trying to find a Western Sandpiper in Minnesota, but it might help to know they often tend to forage in deeper water than Semis or Leasts. And try not to be too surprised or confused if that unfamiliar shorebird standing on shore turns out to be one of the phalaropes: they're not always spinning around in water. (Or, conversely, if you see a yellowlegs or other shorebird swim around phalarope-like for a short time.)

Some land bird examples: Don't assume an owl in a barn or other structure has to be a Barn Owl: Great Horneds sit in barns all the time, and I once saw a Burrowing Owl inside a shed. While any flycatcher can choose high and exposed perches, Olive-sideds especially seem to favor the highest and most conspicuous limbs. If birding northern Minnesota in winter, don't expect to find a Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, junco, goldfinch, or Evening Grosbeak unless you're near a feeder. Looking around cattle often helps if you want to add a magpie to your trip list, and a field spread with the cattle's manure will attract Gray Partridge and Snow Buntings. True to their name, Rock Wrens really do prefer rocks, along with rubble piles, dirt mounds and pits (and they can be quite shy, quiet, and hard to find under those rocks).

Feeding behavior

Where birds tend to be, of course, is often related to finding food, and the manner in which they feed is often characteristic. Many birders know how eiders, Harlequins, and Long-tailed Ducks spread their wings as they dive. So do some scoters, of course, but apparently not all of them. I was surprised to learn recently that Sibley's field guide claims that only Surfs and White-wingeds do this, but not Blacks – I had always assume all three did.

Speaking of diving birds, cormorants ride low in the water, dive more often than many birders think, and are frequently mistaken for loons. This is especially disconcerting when searching for the rarer Red-throated Loon, since cormorants also swim with uptilted bills. (Be aware as well that Pacific Loons can also hold their bills up this way at times.)

Other water bird examples: Unlike typical herons and egrets, a Snowy Egret is often less patient and actively chases after food, suggesting the Reddish Egret. Stilt Sandpipers probe vertically with relatively long bills and thus resemble dowitchers; however, their probing is less deliberate as they walk around more. Terns will dive directly into water, unlike gulls; conversely, gulls swim all the time, but I've only rarely seen terns do so.

Up north in the coniferous forest, Black-backed and American Three-toed woodpeckers quietly scale bark off conifers, so look for flaking tree trunks to find these highly sought species (in winter, bark lying on top of snow can indicate their recent presence). In this same region, you probably won't find Boreal Chickadees routinely visible along a road or at bird feeders: they mostly forage quietly in the interior of conifers back off the road, and they will only visit favored feeders providing suet – I've never heard of or seen a Boreal attracted to sunflower seeds. And, curiously, I've never heard of either of those two woodpeckers coming to suet!

Temporal considerations

Birders of all levels of experience know that time of day and time of year are important behavior variables. Land birds are obviously more active and vocal in the morning, and many territorial passerines will mostly quit singing and become difficult to find after 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and after late June. Owls may be generally nocturnal (with Long-eareds, Boreals, and saw-whets especially unlikely to be active before dark), but Northern Hawk Owls always hunt at midday, and all the other owl species are frequently out just after dawn or right before dusk.

Another nocturnal bird, the Eastern Whip-poor-will, is especially vocal for a short time just after sunset and will then fall silent for long periods after then. Woodcocks display and vocalize for several minutes after dusk and before dawn, but they are silent in the hours in between. This activity, by the way, mostly ceases after mid-May, so this sought-after bird can be especially hard to find from June on. The same is mostly true for most owls and displaying gallinaceous birds: by late May, you'll have a harder time hearing and locating them.

Especially curious is the Sharp-tailed Grouse in winter. At this time of year, you'll want to be out right at dawn to have the best chance of finding Spruce Grouse in the road, and Ruffed Grouse come out mostly at dawn and dusk to visit feeders or feed on aspen and alder catkins. But you don't need to get up before dawn to look for Sharp-taileds: for some reason, they often come out more to forage up in the tamaracks and alders around 9:00 or so.


There are several species known for their shy nature and skulking behavior which renders them relatively difficult to find. Bitterns, rails (especially Yellow and Black), non-singing Sedge and Marsh wrens, Sprague's Pipits, Oporornis warblers, Ammodramus sparrows, and migrant longspurs might come to mind first. (I could almost include Yellow-bellied Sapsucker among these, since it flies low, tends to appear suddenly and silently, and proceeds to land inconspicuously in the shadows.)

Some skulkers exhibit behaviors which can make them easier to view. In general, learn their songs: for example, a singing Sedge Wren, Connecticut Warbler, or Le Conte's Sparrow is typically perched up somewhere and in view. More specifically, that unseen Sprague's Pipit or Henslow's Sparrow you flush from a prairie tract will often perch in view and look around for a few seconds after it lands before ducking out of sight again. So follow them in flight and pay close and quick attention to where they land.

This strategy doesn't really work, though, with those shy longspur flocks in western Minnesota, which will flush and immediately disappear after landing. But in fall along the North Shore of Lake Superior, Lapland Longspurs curiously and typically become relatively unwary as they often remain quite visible poking along roadsides and edges of parking lots.

Becoming aware of species which exhibit such shy behavior can often assist you in reaching accurate identifications. For example, if you're out by day on a marsh boardwalk and think you've spotted a Yellow or Black rail out in the open, take a second look before making such an ID: more likely you're looking at a juvenile Sora (which is brown and buffy like a Yellow) or a rail chick (all are small and black). And think twice before claiming to routinely see some Connecticuts feeding among a wave of warblers or a Nelson's Sparrow out in the open along a roadside with other sparrows.


Once I learned long ago that peregrine means traveling, often in the sense of wandering widely, Peregrine Falcon has been one of my favorite bird names. At the same time, though, some of those species with a tendency to peregrinations have not been among my favorite birds. Sought-after Minnesota specialties like Northern Goshawk and Northern Shrike, given to wandering around in winter, are hard to find for visiting birders since there's no particular place to start looking. Bohemian (another word with wandering connotations) Waxwings can be even more elusive, as they travel in large flocks that don't take long to clean out a neighborhood's food supply and then suddenly disappear for good for parts unknown.

In spring, finding displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse can be a similar challenge. Unlike prairie-chicken leks, which typically remain at the same site for years, for reasons unknown many Sharp-tailed leks will relocate after a year, or even move on a weekly or sometimes day-to-day basis.

Peregrination also includes migration, of course, and it helps to be aware as you encounter migrant flocks that some species tend not to occur as much during migration: e.g., Golden-winged and Pine warblers, Lark Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Brewer's Blackbird, and Orchard Oriole. These have an odd tendency to just show up where they breed and later disappear for the winter with relatively few sightings in spring or fall. Accordingly, there are some ID implications: I suspect that many migrant Pine Warbler reports actually refer to Blackpolls or Bay-breasteds, that most migrant meadowlarks are Westerns, and that Rusty Blackbirds outnumber migrant Brewer's.


During migration or winter, many birders are used to seeing some species down low to the ground, often under heavy cover. Some examples of these include Winter Wren, thrushes, Ovenbird, waterthrushes, Connecticut and Mourning warblers, and most sparrows. These same birders, then, may be surprised to find these birds singing away on territory well above the ground, like a Winter Wren or Northern Waterthrush atop a 60-foot spruce, or a singing male Ovenbird or Connecticut Waterthrush 30 feet up in an aspen. (The higher the singer, the farther the song carries, and thus better for attracting a mate and defending territory.)

The ultimate in singing "perch" heights is reached by Sprague's Pipits, singing on territory in aerial displays 100 feet or more above ground. Horned Larks can also sing in flight (though less prolonged and not as high as the pipit), and I have seen birds like Common Yellowthroats and Nelson's Sparrows launch themselves 20 feet or so up and above the marsh to sing before dropping back to earth.  

Turning to ventriloquial singers, especially owls and nightjars, look for them in your spotlight closer than you think they are – what sounds like something 100 feet away is typically only a half or a third of that. The one notable exception is Yellow Rail, which always seems to sound closer than it really is: what may sound like a bird tapping away in the dark almost at your feet, will probably turn out to be some 100 feet away.

Finally, some observations on bird behavior in response to recordings:

• Some species tend to ignore recordings. There are exceptions, but I've often had little or no response from Yellow Rails, both cuckoos, Great Gray and Long-eared owls, Winter and Marsh wrens, and Red Crossbills (White-wingeds, though, are usually more responsive).

• Male Spruce Grouse can sometimes be attracted by recordings of female vocalizations, especially in spring and early summer; playbacks tend to be useless at other times of year.

• Barred Owl recordings can be as effective as screech-owl calls in attracting small birds – and don't be surprised if these owls come in by day as you play their calls in pursuit of other birds.

• Want to call in Black-backed or American Three-toed woodpeckers? Playing recordings of their drumming is usually more effective than playing call notes. This can work any time in year, although they tend to respond more in mid- or late winter on milder days.

• Many Boreal Chickadees will respond by approaching only briefly before withdrawing for good, and no amount of playback will get them back. Redpolls can also be shy around recorders; after they initially come in, redpolls often will fly off if playback continues.

• Many birds will silently come in to recordings; so, if the bird you seek stops singing, that's the time to pay special attention – it may mean the bird you're after is right in front of you, not gone.

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There is much more one could say about the varied behaviors of such a wide range of birds – this essay certainly has not attempted to include everything relevant to this broad subject. But at least it might remind birders to take a second look at the behaviors of other species and take them into consideration when trying to find and identify them. (And remember, as you do so, please try to behave yourselves!)