One of the most exciting things about nature is watching live animal behavior.
It’s getting to see with your own eyes, the life and death struggles of wild animals.
The most common examples of animal behavior include feeding, territorial behavior, courtship, nesting, breeding activity, hunting & predator evasion.
And the best thing is that pretty much anyone can observe these behaviors happening right in your own neighbourhood! Which makes studying animal behavior an extremely accessible way to learn about local wildlife.
These are intimate moments that make us stop and forget about our troubles for a few minutes, to experience a different kind of life through the eyes of our forest friends.
Many people only ever experience this closeness with wild animals on safari, or at the zoo, which really isn’t the same as being truly wild.
Yet with the right approach, you’ll be amazed at the many examples of animal behavior that are happening right this moment in your local parks, wild spaces & even your own backyard.
I’m excited to show you just how easy it is to uncover the secret world of animals. It’s super fun, and will even open your mind in surprising ways. So let’s get started!
How To Observe Animal Behavior
There are some amazing things happening with animals that you’ve probably never realized, even right outside your front door.
Later on this page, I’m going to share a whole bunch of examples of common animal behaviors that anyone can find.
But first, there’s just a little bit of helpful knowledge that will ensure you get the best results. “Bear” with me on this and it will help you get oriented quicker.
If you want to have the greatest success with finding, and observing the behaviors and lives of animals, then you really need to think like a tracker.
Being a tracker simply means using your innate sensory awareness abilities to see, hear, observe and identify patterns in nature.
At the heart of wildlife tracking skills is asking questions to direct your attention & awareness.
The following 3 tips will help you get better at observing animals so you can accurately interpret their behaviors!
1. Learn Your Local Animals
The first question to think about is: Who actually lives in your area?
By this I mean, what animals might you possibly get to observe?
It’s helpful to know this before going outside so you have an idea about what to look for. You might be surprised by just how many animals are out there!
Many folks, even those living in the city, don’t realize there are deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and more living around them all the time.
Animals are very sneaky, and humans (unless they’ve practiced paying attention) are very often not aware of their presence.
If you practice being quiet and opening your senses, eventually there’s a high likelihood of seeing animals that you never expected could be living right under your nose.
For today, let’s focus on the low-hanging fruit.
Birds, squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs… these are frequently the best animals to start with.
Sometimes people are less interested in these animals because they’re so common, but if you give them a chance, they will be some of your best teachers.
Small & abundant animals actually do many of the same behaviors that the larger and more rare animals do.
This means you can hone your animal behavior skills with small animals, and then later on you’ll be better equipped to study more sneaky animals when the opportunity arises.
You might benefit from grabbing a field guide to mammals and just making a list of all the possible mammals that could be living in your midst.
Make sure you include things like voles, shrews, mice, groundhogs, rabbits, etc.
This will get your radar open to just how many animals might be living close to you.
2. Look For Seasonal Behaviors
The second question to consider is: What time of year is this?
Pay close attention to the time of year when you go searching for animal behaviors, because the season can have a significant effect on what you’re likely to observe.
For example, spring tends to be associated with courtship & birthing of young. There are many behaviours associated with this part of the life cycle that only occur during spring.
Summer is a time of great abundance. This is the time of year when animal populations are at their highest density, which offers unique opportunities to observe group behavior.
It’s also a time of year when animals don’t have to work quite so hard in order to survive. This can sometimes make it more difficult to spot them.
Fall is the time of year when ungulates like deer, moose & elk are having their rut. You’ll notice there are massive changes in their behavior resulting from this event.
Spring and fall are also times of year that correlate with significant amounts of seasonal movement. Birds are migrating, some large mammals will move and change their patterns between summer territories and winter territories.
Winter is a time of great extremes. There are moments when the land seems completely barren, and you might wonder how anything can survive. But there are also oases of great activity if you know where to look.
Winter tends to be a time when food sources are more sparse, yet centralized. It’s possible to find incredible diversity and animal populations centred around bird feeders, or winter berry sources.
There are unique things to observe about animals and their behavior in each season, so the best results come from making time to explore at all times of year.
3. Follow Your Passions
The third thing to consider is a bit more internal: What excites you about studying animals in the first place?
You will probably find that some successes come very quickly, while others do take some practice and time investment to identify certain behaviours & activity.
If you aren’t clear about your purpose, then you might lose motivation.
I find the people who have the most success with connecting to animals & nature are also those who have clarity about their purpose for practicing.
Here are some of the most common motivators:
A Deep Love For Animals
For many people who get interested in nature, it really just comes down to a simple love for animals, birds, and the joy you get from seeing them in their natural state.
Many people find that having a daily dose of vitamin N results in greater pleasure from all aspects of life.
This is well supported by research so if you ever find yourself feeling an irrational desire to surround yourself with animals & trees, just remember that it’s healthy 😉
This is even something you could even turn into a rewarding career if you so desire.
Sharpening Your Observation Skills
The ability to make keen observations is surprisingly rare in a world that rewards observation.
I’ve written about this a fair amount in reference to my own past experiences with formal education. The vast majority of public and private education focus almost entirely on cognitive and academic studies.
While concepts and ideas are absolutely an essential part of a well-rounded education, most people are walking around with barely enough observation skills to safely cross a street.
If you look at the most successful people on our planet, a big part of their success comes from the ability to make astute observations.
Nature based education including wildlife tracking, bird language, ecological studies & animal behavior is really one of the best ways to train sharp observation skills.
This is how human beings survived throughout most of our evolutionary history, and though we’re no longer hunters & gatherers, we still depend on observation to make good decisions & lead the best possible lives.
So why not do some direct training of your observation skills?
Connecting With Nature As A Lifestyle
With all the changes happening in our environment, many people are seeking ways of living the simple life.
Nature is one of the best ways to relieve stress. It’s a drug-free life enhancer, and it’s an essential ingredient in raising brilliant & healthy children.
Speaking for myself, I’m motivated to study animals by all three of these reasons.
I love the feeling of wildness that comes from having close encounters with animals. I love seeing the moments of raw life and the stillness in my mind when immersed in the beauty of nature.
I also love developing my mind and observation skills… then applying those skills to everything else happening in my life. I’ve used observation skills to improve my health, communication.
I really do believe that nature provides one of the most rewarding lifestyles. All I have to do is step outside and it’s like an instant meditation as the stress melts away.
This is something we really need in the modern world.
Of course, the most important thing is that you identify what is truly inspiring for YOU!
The more clarity you have about your goals & motivations, the better your results will be!
Okay, enough chit chat…
10 Animal Behavior Examples
Let’s really dive in now and look at some easy ways to get started with your studies in animal behavior.
- What happens now when you get outside?
- What should you look for?
These are all very common behaviors to look for you. With a keen eye, there’s a high likelihood of being able to spot many of these activities right in your own backyard.
#1 Food Collection
Food collection simply means any behaviour designed to collect food.
This is probably the easiest of all animal behaviors to spot, so it’s a great place to start.
Almost every animal has it’s own unique way of finding and gathering food.
You might think that all birds are the same, but actually if you really stop to watch the patterns and rhythms of feeding, each bird has does it a little bit different.
Some birds catch insects on the wing. Some birds hunt worms in the grass. Others forage for seeds & berries in the trees.
It all depends on the size of the bird, the type of food, beak shape, and even time of year can sometimes dramatically alter the feeding pattern of any given animal.
Food collection at first glance seems like a very surface level behavior, but you’ll be amazed how much insight this activity can provide you about an animal.
Squirrels will store up massive amounts of food that they never even end up eating. They will also steal from their neighbours whether or not it’s necessary for survival.
Look for signs of vole activity in the tunnels under tall grass.
Because food collection is so incredibly common, you really don’t want to ignore this opportunity to study an animal’s habits.
#2 Aphid Farming
Insects provide some of the most incredible opportunities to find interactive animal behaviour in action.
Aphid farming is an incredibly common behavior done by ants where they collect a sugary substance produced by aphids in exchange for protection from predators.
The ants also sometimes collect aphid eggs in order to establish new colonies.
This is pretty mind-blowing when you think about it.
You can identify this behavior by keeping a watchful eye on the stems of budding flowers on plants & herbs.
Aphids are quite small, but they tend to grow in groups, typically starting just before a plant flowers, and continuing through the flowering period.
They suck sugars out of the plants, and very often you’ll spot ants hovering around the area of the aphids, collecting sugar and possibly defending their food source from predators. Very cool!
#3 Territorial Behavior
This is one of the most fundamental behaviors that can be readily observed in most animals. From the smallest birds & squirrels to larger mammals & reptiles.
Most animals will keep and protect a certain range of territory to make sure they always have their basic needs covered.
One of the simplest ways to spot territorial behavior is during the spring nesting season for birds. Did you know that one of the big reasons birds sing is to denote their territory?
That means if you’ve ever heard a bird sing then you’ve heard territorial behavior!
If you spend time watching birds during spring, you’ll eventually spot little scuffles & bursts of activity where sparrows, robins & other species argue over their boundaries.
Territorial squirrels like red squirrels or douglas squirrels will actively chase each other and make a huge racket when a neighbour comes too close.
You can also observe a different type of territorial behavior in flocks by watching for hierarchies of dominance. You can spot this in chickadees, or any small flock of birds.
These same behaviours can be seen in more rare animals given the opportunity, but you’ll learn them first by watching the small & abundant creatures who are lower on the food chain.
It looks like aggression, or marking activities by voice, visual display, scent or physical contact.
Here’s a video example of territorial behavior display being made by a pheasant:
Courtship is any behavior relating to pairing up & mating.
Many animals go through an extended period of days or weeks when they display almost ritualized behavior associated with choosing a mate.
Look for squirrels chasing each other around the forest or deer bucking antlers if you’re really lucky.
Males will sing early in the morning both to attract a mate, and tell other males to stay away. Eventually you can spot a male & female feeding close together. The male might even give some food to his lady.
Most small animals will do their courtship in Spring, while larger animals like deer are courting in the fall.
Some animals like voles, mice and squirrels can even have multiple mating periods during a single year.
Nesting is closely related with courtship, though some animals are much more sophisticated with their nesting behaviors.
Birds stand out once again as being a prime example that’s extremely simple to find during spring.
You can look for behaviors like gathering nest materials, or flying repeatedly into the same trees over and over again, eventually with food in their mouths too.
Many rodents like mice, squirrels & chipmunks are also highly dependant on building warm nests to keep their young warm.
It’s more challenging to spot the signs of rodent nests being built, but you can find them in old sheds & tucked away secret spots in the forest.
Despite how common this behavior is, you would be amazed at how difficult it can be to actually locate a live nest.
Watch the following video if you want to improve your chances at finding bird nests…
After nesting & childbirth comes parenting.
One of the easiest signs of parenting is when you see food being taken to a nest.
If you’re quite patient, you might also get a chance to see baby animals.
I once observed a mother red squirrel carry her newborn babies one-by-one from their birth nest to their summer nest. The whole process took about an hour as she could only take one at a time. It was an amazing thing to watch.
Fledgling birds are those who recently left the nest, but they’re still almost completely dependant on their parents for food and guidance.
They often look a bit puffy or drowsy with not-fully-formed flying abilities.
A common response when people see fledgling crows on the ground is to think it’s injured. In most cases the parent is just off gathering food.
It’s extremely important not to interfere with fledglings or baby animals. Just keep watching and you’ll probably find the parent comes back soon.
Fledgling ravens make an easily identifiable sound that stands out from incredibly long distances.
In the case of larger animals like foxes or deer, their can provide an amazing experience of closeness because they haven’t yet developed fear of humans.
Always remember to give animals lots of space and don’t interfere with their natural growth patterns.
Hunting behavior is a fascinating thing to observe because it involves the interaction between predator & prey.
It can be sad to watch small animals lose their lives, but it’s also one of the most fascinating parts of animal interaction.
Many hawks & other predator owls have developed very unique strategies for hunting. With a keen eye, it’s quite possible to observe these strategies in action.
It gives you a tremendous look at the evolutionary history of an animal, to see how it eats or avoids being eaten.
If you ever catch yourself thinking there’s no hunters where you live, just remember that where there is prey, there are predators! If there wasn’t then the populations would get out of control.
Owls will perch at the edge of a field, listening for the sounds of voles scurrying under the tall grass. Owls are very easy to locate with bird language.
Eagles & Ospreys are very common and easy to spot along the edges of river systems & lakes.
In my article on ecosystems, I described an incredibly complex interaction of hunting & scavenging that linked together a fox, a harrier, a family of crows, and some turkey vultures. You can read about it here.
#8 Predatory Wasps
Predatory wasps are another fascinating gift from the insect world.
They can look a bit menacing at times, but most species are not particularly aggressive towards humans. Instead, they use their stingers to attack garden pests and mostly just want to be left alone.
It’s always a good idea to be aware if you have any particularly aggressive species living in your area, and be careful not to disturb the nests of social wasps like yellow-jackets.
If however, you see one of these guys flying around amongst the foliage, it can be great to fun to watch where it goes and maybe you’ll get to see a live hunt!
#9 Alarm Communication
All this hunting and need to avoid predators is one of the main reasons why many animals have developed complex systems of vocal communication.
Alarm communication is a fascinating area of animal behavior.
With practice listening to alarm calls, it’s possible to not only assess the presence of predators on the landscape, but also to know which predators specifically, whether they’re coming from the air or the ground, and approximately how far away.
The most complex alarm system is that produced by birds, but animals like squirrels, voles, groundhogs, rabbits, foxes, raccoons, bobcats and pretty much anything capable of making sound, have particular calls they make in alarm situations.
#10 Nest Robbers
Nest robbing is a very specific type of predatory behavior that only really happens during springtime when the birds are in full nesting mode.
Many animals that aren’t typically thought of as predators will take advantage of this time to seek out an easy source of eggs and baby birds to eat.
Crows, jays, magpies & large soaring hawks like red-tailed hawks are all examples of common aerial nest robbers.
Ground nest robbers include raccoons, possums, snakes, rats & squirrels.
Nest robbing situations get some of the most intense alarm response from birds. I’ve encountered alarms with no less than 50 birds all crowding around and making an awful racket at a red-tailed hawk in spring.
Words of Encouragement
There’s a high likelihood that you have many, if not all of these common animal behaviors happening very close to where you live.
It will likely take some time to acquire the necessary patience and observation skills to spot examples from each different category, but you can totally do it!
The most important thing is to have fun, develop some good naturalist routines, and eventually you’ll become an animal behavior whiz 😉
Let me know what you discover!