Identification - Bird Behavior
If you saw a small brownish bird on your lawn wagging its tail constantly, you might realize that this was a Palm Warbler. A small bird whose flight pattern was like a small roller coaster would be an American Goldfinch rather than a Song Sparrow.
Behavior is rarely the best way to identify a bird, but it can help narrow your choices or confirm what you already suspect.
Of course, if we include singing as a behavior, then this might be the way you ultimately identify over 50% of the birds you encounter. Perhaps you never do see the bird -- but you know its voice. You may never see a Chuck-will's-widow or a Black Rail, but you know one when you hear one!
Raptors at a distance can often be identified by behavior alone. Hawks, Falcons and Eagles each have their own unique pattern of flapping and gliding. Visit Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania or Cape May, New Jersey in the fall and stand on a Hawk-watch platform. Tiny specks in the sky are identified at a distance of 2-3 miles!
You can often identify a bird long before you get close enough to see the color or any identification features pointed out in the field guides. Combine a bird's general shape with a specific behavior such as its pattern of flight or pattern of searching for food and you just "know" what it is. You "know" the bird way down there on the phone wire is an American Kestrel. This is called a bird's "jizz". After years of birding, it becomes a natural way to identify birds. For newer birders, identifying a bird in this manner is nothing short of magic!
Behavior can make your observation of birds quite fascinating. Don't stop looking at a bird just because you managed to identify it! Study the bird. What is it doing? Why is it doing this? Is it trying to attract a mate, scaring off rival suitors, preparing to copulate or getting ready to migrate?
There are many great books that go into wonderful detail about the behavior of the birds in your yard or at the shore. One of our favorites is The Birder's Handbook, a comprehensive reference of fascinating information not included in your field guide. You can get the entire Birder's Handbook on all Thayer Birding Software DVDs.