I still remember the very first time I put real effort into understanding bird behavior…
It was amazing to witness all the incredible body language & activity that was constantly happening just by observing what birds are doing.
At the same time, I know bird life can also be pretty overwhelming because there’s so much diversity & incredible speed behind their actions.
I was lucky to have some really amazing mentors & behavior resources that helped point me in the right direction, and today I’d like to pass these lessons on to you.
I’m going to give you a practical list of common bird behaviors you can immediately start to identify outside.
But even more importantly, I want to help you acquire the spirit of observation that lives at the core of studying birds.
The big key to understanding bird behavior is having the right mindset to observe & articulate what is actually happening with birds, while also having plenty of real life examples to help you make fast progress.
This ability to identify, observe & interpret what birds are doing, largely depends on being able to make high quality observations.
For example – everybody knows that birds sing and build nests. These are extremely common behaviors.
But have you ever taken the time to actually watch a complete sequence of singing or nesting activity?
Most people (even people who genuinely love birds) have simply never taken the time to observe birds in a truly high quality way.
I actually believe real life observation is much more important and rewarding than simply having a bunch of academic knowledge or ideas.
Instead you’ll be able to rely on your own naturalist intelligence and awareness to make new & original discoveries without anyone needing to tell you what to look for.
By the end of this article you’ll be equipped to get outside & observe birds with excellent precision so you can truly understand their behavior on a deep level…
Foundations For Observing Bird Behavior
What Am I Observing? (Observe & Describe)
Here’s one of the most important things to realize about observing bird behavior…
Most people (unless they have special training) tend to start out with extremely poor observation skills.
In fact, one of the reasons I first got interested in bird behavior as a teenager was because I wanted to improve my own observation skills in all areas of life.
Even more than knowing what behaviors to look for, you need to have a firm grasp on how to use your own sensory awareness to be truly present & aware to your surroundings.
Bird Observation Game
Here’s a quick little awareness game you can try out and test your own observation skills while studying bird behavior.
First – Go find a bird and spend a good 30 seconds watching it.
Try to make as many observations about that bird as you can in 30 seconds. Put 100% of your focus on just watching very carefully like a detective.
Don’t get caught up in your thoughts. Put everything aside and just watch that bird as carefully as you’re able for 30 seconds.
Next – When the 30 seconds is done, grab a journal and try to write down as many details as you can remember by memory.
For the purpose of this experiment, I don’t want you to look at the bird while you journal your observations.
The key here is to practice journaling from memory rather than just recording what’s directly in front of you.
Using your memory will give you a more realistic picture of what you’re actually observing VS what you think you’re observing.
If you find being outside distracts you from using your memory to journal, simply go indoors to a quiet place and do your journal there.
Questions To Help You Journal Bird Behaviors
The goal of doing a bird memory journal is to try and describe all the little details of that bird including it’s posture, location, movement, vocalizations, activity or stillness, etc.
The purpose is to fully engage your sensory memory, and don’t just focus on the surface level!
Imagine you’re trying to describe that bird’s activity to someone who wasn’t there with you. Try to describe it in such detail that they can almost see what you observed through your words.
While simply writing, “I saw a bird on the lawn” may be technically correct, if you really want to get the most from watching bird behavior, you need to practice looking closer.
Here are some questions to help prompt you to better articulate and remember the details of what the bird was doing:
- Where was the bird?
- Was it on the ground?
- Was it flying?
- How much was it moving & what was the pattern?
- What was it actually doing?
- Was it walking?
- Was it skipping?
- Was it picking something up with it’s beak?
- Was it eating anything?
- What was it eating?
- What was it’s posture?
- Was it very alert & looking around?
- Was it sitting upright and highly visible?
- Was it hiding under some thick brush?
- Was it standing out in the open very still?
- Were there any vocalizations?
- What was the sequence of activity?
- Did the behavior change at any point?
- What else did you observe?
There’s a lot more questions you could ask, but these will get you started with the right kind of deeper observation required to really understand bird behavior.
Being able to journal this way from memory is the first step to gaining deeper insight about their activities.
It’s a very simple exercise that effectively connects your sensory awareness with your sensory memory.
Very often when people try to understand bird behavior, their eyes may be technically open, but almost none of it is actually being stored for later use.
As a result, most people vastly over-estimate how much they observe, and convince themselves they’re seeing things clearly, when in fact they’re often missing large chunks of information.
You can confirm this fact for yourself simply by playing with this little awareness game, clear your mind, and then test your memory with a journal to see how much you actually remember.
You might be surprised to realize there are significant blank spaces in your memory of watching birds.
And if you notice these blank spaces, don’t worry… it just means you need practice!
You can simply repeat this exercise multiple times with multiple birds, and each time you’ll get a little bit better.
Then as you get more skilled, practice increasing the amount of time you watch before going to your journal to record.
If 30 seconds was easy… try watching a bird for 5 minutes and see how much detail you can remember. Then go to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes.
This will do wonders for your observation skills both with birds & nature, and also in other areas of life like your career & relationships.
Improve Your Sensory Memory To Understand Birds
Sensory memory is absolutely foundational to all nature observation.
It’s so important that I created a complete nature memory journal program to walk you through the entire philosophy and step-by-step process.
Here’s how to think about this…
For every 30 seconds of observation, a skilled observer will be able to spend many minutes describing the details of what they heard, saw, felt, etc.
This is especially important when it comes to birds because they move in and out of behavior patterns so quickly.
Practice will ensure that when you work with the following list of bird behaviors, your senses will be open enough to actually perceive what’s happening.
As you work with the list of common bird behaviors, remember to apply the nature memory journaling technique to get the best results.
9 Common Bird Behaviors List
Now that you have some of the core strategy behind making good observations of bird behavior, let’s take a closer look at the most common behaviors you’ll actually find outside.
While it’s always fun seeing rare and unusual bird behaviors, the vast majority of what into birds do actually tends to be a fairly small list of common things that all birds do pretty much every day, or at certain key times of year.
This is good news because it means your learning curve will be much faster when you start with the most common behaviors.
This is one of the big secrets for learning birds quickly – Don’t try to go out and look for the most difficult behaviors if you’re a beginner!
Master the basic behaviors first and then you’ll be ready to challenge yourself with more rarely seen activities.
Here are 9 of the most common bird behaviors you should definitely learn to recognize…
1. Feeding Behavior
By far, one of the most common types of bird behavior is feeding behavior.
This happens every day during all times of year, and therefore it’s one of the best ways to get started.
There’s actually a lot more subtlety to how birds gather food than you might initially realize.
In the beginning you might just say “Oh that bird is feeding”, but the reality is different birds have their own unique ways of finding food and consuming it.
The trick is to try and see how many different types of feeding behavior you can find. Let’s look at a few of the most common feeding behaviors.
Some of the most common birds you see outside are ground feeders like sparrows & thrushes because they’re not hidden high up in the trees.
Yet even amongst ground feeders you’ll notice there’s a wide diversity that can be observed.
Some birds like the American robin like to feed on open lawns. They stop, look, listen, walk a few paces and suddenly pounce on an unsuspecting worm.
Other birds like sparrows seem to putter around in circles slowly picking along the forest edge for insects.
Pay close attention when you see birds feeding on the ground and notice that each species has it’s own unique pattern of feeding.
These subtle differences are a fascinating way to increase your understanding of birds.
One of the biggest contrasts to ground feeding is canopy feeding.
This tends to be a lot more challenging to identify simply because the birds are somewhat hidden behind tree leaves, and further away.
Sometimes the easiest way to clue into canopy feeding is by the sound birds make as they move through.
I notice this one especially during late spring when the maple keys ripen and get ready to fall. My neighbourhood becomes filled with large flocks of cedar waxwings coming in to feed on the abundant seeds.
Other treetop birds like warblers eat a lot of insects and spiders, so their feeding activity is much more spread out and subtle. You really have to pay close attention if you want to spot a warbler feeding in the canopy.
The classic bark feeders in my area include nuthatches and brown creepers.
These birds are adapted with special feet that are capable of holding onto the trunks of trees, sometimes walking up and down the trunk as if it were flat ground.
You could also put woodpeckers in this category, although they frequently are after things underneath the bark.
Bark feeders are easier to observe than the canopy dwellers so I highly recommend watching a few different species and get to know the behavior patterns of bark feeding in your area.
Another completely different type of feeding behavior is aerial feeding.
This includes birds like swallows and swifts who catch insects on the fly.
They often have very specific requirements for nesting & roosting sites next to an open field with plenty of insect activity.
This means some places might have almost no aerial feeders, while other places the sky is filled with them.
It’s amazing to watch their acrobatics and marvel at how skilled they are to catch so many tiny insects at high speed.
Hawking is another type of feeding behavior frequently used by flycatchers.
It’s sort of like a mixture between aerial feeding & perch hunting.
The bird will perch at a high point in a tree waiting for insects to fly by. Then the bird will suddenly leap out from it’s perch, catch the insect and quickly fly back to the tree.
If you watch carefully you’ll get to see this pattern repeating over and over again. Once you see it this behavior is super obvious.
Predatory Feeding (Hunting)
Of course, no list of bird feeding behaviors would be complete without mentioning predatory birds hunting for mammals or smaller birds.
This is definitely one of the most exciting things you’ll get to witness as you practice watching & getting to know the birds.
Many people have mixed feelings about things like hawks, especially the ones who specialize in hunting other birds.
But the fact remains that aerial predators keep nature in balance. What they do is necessary for the successful functioning of the food chain.
Even within hunting behaviors, different types of predators have many different strategies for catching prey.
Some will perch on a tree and wait for the right moment to pounce.
Others will soar high overhead and watch for opportunities, covering much larger distances.
Some will fly way high up in the sky and then nosedive down to catch their prey at incredible speeds.
Some eat mostly fish, while others focus more on small mammals or even snakes & frogs.
Others still specialize in catching birds on the fly in deep forest cover.
Make a list of some local aerial predators, then see if you can watch them doing what they’re so well known for!
2. Territorial Behavior
Another extremely common type of bird behavior is territorial behavior.
Most people who take an interest in birds are already familiar with this behavior, although you might not realize it yet.
If you’ve ever heard a bird sing, then you’ve already observed songbird territorial behavior in action.
Bird songs can also be used as part of courtship as we’ll see in the next example.
So just because you hear song, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bird being territorial, but it is a good clue to help you identify where birds are hanging out.
An even more certain expression of territorial behavior is actual aggression activity when songbirds will physical yell, scream, chase, and on rare occasion physically fight with each other to maintain their boundaries.
Sometimes people think these moments of aggression are alarm calls, but if you pay attention to who is involved, you’ll see it’s two members of the same bird species.
Territorial behavior is most common during spring as birds are getting ready to mate.
In larger birds, territorial behavior can also be expressed by the eagle or a large soaring hawk circling high over their territory.
Early in the season before the boundaries are really established, you might get to see enemy eagles lock talons & tumble towards the earth in a pretty amazing display.
Keep watching after the battle is over and you’ll get to see who is the winner by who stays and who turns back.
On the other hand, a strange thing to realize is this seemingly aggressive activity can also be a courtship behavior if it’s happening between a male & female.
Another great bird to help you spot territorial behavior is crows. Crows can be extremely territorial against other families and potential threats to their nesting site.
3. Courtship Behavior
The next thing to start looking for is courtship behavior…
This behavior can definitely be quite a bit more subtle than feeding & territorial activity, so you should get comfortable with those behaviors first.
Sometimes the main clue of courting activity is simply seeing pairs of birds spending all their time together.
This is something that can be readily observed with Robins in north america as an example.
During late winter you’ll notice the males are all feeding together in large groups, with no females in sight. That’s a good clue territorial behavior has not started yet.
Then as spring emerges, you’ll notice these male groups begin to disperse across the landscape, while singing & defending territory.
At this point it becomes less and less likely to see large groups of male robins feeding together in the daytime.
Then one day you’ll notice that each male is accompanied by a female with slightly lighter or softer plumage.
If you continue watching the pair, you might get to see the male feeding the female as their bond solidifies.
4. Nest Building
Quite soon after pairing up, birds start building their nests.
Notice how each behavior builds on the next, so each new behavior you identify makes it easier to observe more subtle activity.
Now you can start watching for signs of birds gathering grasses, mud or small sticks, and carrying them into hidden spots on the landscape.
This happens during spring, though some birds are earlier than others, even starting in late winter sometimes. And some birds can still be seen nesting in early summer.
For obvious reasons, most birds are quite secretive about where the place their nests, and this means you really have to pay close attention to find where they’re hiding.
There are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes birds will build nests in some of the most obvious spots, it’s almost a miracle they can be successful at all.
Nesting is also an interesting area of bird behavior because not all birds build nests the same way.
There are different types of nests made by different types of birds.
Sometimes it’s the female who makes the nest. Sometimes both the male and female help out. It all depends a lot on what species you’re watching.
Cup nests are one of the most standard nest types that most people envision when they think about bird nests.
Some birds like the America Robin build cup nests about 10-15 up in a tree. Sparrows tend to build cup nests in low shrubs within 3-5 feet of the ground.
And some birds like juncos will even build cup nests right on the ground, which requires a tremendous amount of stealth.
The other type of nest that most people are already familiar with is a cavity nest. These are often made by woodpeckers, or they form on old trees after large branches fall off.
However cavity nests are favoured by many different types of birds, including chickadees & blue birds, sometimes coming back to the same spots year after year to raise their families.
Look for large dead standing trees, or places where large branches have fallen to form a nook.
Other Nest Types
As you spend more time watching birds during the nesting season you’ll get to know a variety of other shapes & sizes of nest.
Sometimes they hang down like a string of moss with a single entrance hole that completely closes off the eggs from predators.
Other times birds like swallows will build little mud homes on the side of buildings or cliffs.
You’ll notice a lot of aerial predators have very basic nests that just look like a bunch of sticks, or even no nest at all, preferring to lay eggs right on the ground with absolutely no protection.
Most importantly – always remember to be cautious and respectful of birds during the nesting season.
Try to give birds their space because this is a stressful time of year, and if you’re not careful you might give away nest locations to egg robbers like jays & crows.
5. Mating Behavior
Mating behavior typically begins quite soon after the nest is built.
As far as birds go, mating is sometimes one of the tougher behaviors to actually see because it typically doesn’t last very long.
It only happens for a few days as the eggs are being fertilized. If you miss it, then you’ll have to wait a whole year to have another shot.
However birds do commonly mate in plain sight that would make most humans blush.
So if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might see a brief flurry of wing flapping that lets you know love is in the air.
6. Mobbing & Predator Evasion
Predator evasion happens at all times of year, but very often the easiest time to start tuning in with alarms is during spring.
I covered a lot on bird alarm behaviors in my other articles about bird language.
This is one behavior that really works best if you can both see and hear it.
Some of the most intense alarms happen during the spring nesting season because nest robbers are often not a danger to the parents, but an extreme threat to the eggs.
Parent birds will intensely chase, scream & mob, sometimes directed towards animals that you wouldn’t normally think of as a threat to songbirds like rats, jays, squirrels, raccoons, snakes, etc.
Next time you hear birds calling like the forest is on fire, it could be an alarm!
7. Fledgling Behavior
Starting life is a tough thing for small birds, but amazingly every year they eventually succeed.
As you get later into spring and early summer, you’ll start to notice the courted pairs of birds are suddenly accompanied by small groups of their immature offspring.
If you catch this very early after the juveniles have left the nest, they will sometimes appear almost groggy and clumsy as they test out their wings.
Fledglings at this stage have not yet learned to be fearful of humans, and it’s common for them to land on people at this time of year.
This is a dangerous time for young birds because they don’t yet know how bird language works, and sometimes won’t respond to alarm calls for nearby predators.
You’ll often see them following their parents around the forest, shaking their wings and making constant begging calls for food.
Pretty soon they’ll learn to feed themselves like adults and you almost won’t know the difference other than some spotted plumage.
8. Flocking Behaviors
As spring turns into summer, nesting will gradually slow down as you see more and more fledglings becoming independent.
At this point, you’ll start to notice the mating pairs who were furiously defending their territory as a couple, are gradually replaced by larger flocks of birds.
The juveniles are now self-sufficient, but remain with the group for safety.
This is the time of year when I often see large influxes of starlings or grackles coming in to feed on the lawn.
Bird flocks can become quite large at this time of year, and for some species, territorial behavior is no longer maintained.
9. Migration & Seasonal Movement
Finally as summer comes to a close, summer flocks of birds begin making their autumn journey to winter territories.
This is when you might notice new and interesting species coming through your favourite bird watching areas.
These are not nesting residents, but rather migratory birds. Some bird species will travel incredible distances across the globe.
Others only go a short distance, even just moving to a different section of the same bio-region.
It happens in fall, and again in spring, when the whole thing repeats over again.
The more times you watch this yearly cycle of bird behaviors, the easier to is to understand why they do what they do.
It’s an exciting process of learning, and all starts with getting outside to watch, listen and explore.
9 More Tips For Understanding Bird Behavior
Let’s finish this lesson with a few rapid-fire tips to help you really maximize your results with exploring bird behavior.
- Use Binoculars – These can really help you see subtle movements and postures more clearly.
- Use Your Eyes AND Ears – Sometimes the best clues for understanding bird behavior are actually sound rather than sight. If you can both see AND hear a bird, you’ll be much more likely to understand what it’s doing.
- Practice at different times of day – Birds do different behaviors at different times of day. Some birds only mate during the morning. Some birds actually migrate during the cover of nighttime!
- Practice during different seasons – As you probably noticed from the list, many bird behaviors are isolated to specific seasons or times of year. You’ll get the greatest understanding when you can observe through all four seasons.
- Keep A Bird Journal & Write What You See – Sometimes writing out what you see & hear helps you identify and remember key parts of the behavior. Putting your observations into words uses more of your brain.
- Pay Attention To The Location Of Behaviors – Everything in nature fits into a context. Sometimes context can completely change the meaning of the behavior. Are you in a big forest? Are you in a field? On the edge of the ocean? Next to a lake or pond?
- Ask Yourself WHY – Don’t just be satisfied with knowing what a behavior is. Ask yourself why is that bird acting this way? Why is it doing this here? Why now? Why not somewhere else? The question WHY points our attention towards an ecology of connections that increases the quality & quantity of knowledge we have about birds. You’ll find that when you investigate why birds do what they do, it dramatically increases your intuition about what is happening on the landscape. It helps you to acquire predictive skills so you can foresee potential outcomes before they even occur.
- Get Yourself A Good Field Guide – The more you know about birds in general, the better off you’ll be. Identification is a helpful foundation if you have no prior experience. I also highly recommend Stokes Guide To Bird Behavior Vol 1, 2, 3.
- Practice Sensory Awareness – Sometimes when people struggle with birds it’s because they need practice with watching & listening. Modern technology has deadened the senses of most humans, however bird behavior requires a certain degree of mindfulness & conscious awareness to effectively understand.
Most important whenever you study bird behavior, make sure you keep it fun!
Ask yourself – What am I truly excited and curious to learn about? Then go for a wander and practice watching birds… And let me know what behaviors you discover out there!