Virtually anywhere you are outside in nature, you will see them. Birds are one of the most prevalent classes of organisms on earth. In fact, recent research estimates there are between 50 billion and 430 billion birds on Earth! At any given time, these billions of birds will be busy. Busy foraging for food, defending territory, raising young, migrating, or another activity so crucial in the world of birds. The great thing about birds in our world is that birds will engage in many of these behaviors right before our eyes. They're not shy!
To the budding naturalist, paying attention to the daily behaviors of birds is one of their first and most vital lessons— and an excellent investment of time. Birds can tell us so much about nature: from the season to weather conditions, the presence of other creatures and so much more about the inner workings of an ecosystem.
But birds can also teach us about ourselves too. Knowing them requires patience and time so your child will need to work on these to be good bird behaviorists. Studying birds can also help sharpen our powers of observation. After all, what could be more challenging than trying to observe a busy flurry of color 20-30 feet high in the air?
When you take your child out to watch birds, you might be tempted to focus on identifying the birds you see. Of course, we encourage birding for all ages. But one thing we like about studying bird behavior is that you can learn things about ALL birds by studying the ones in front of you. Just like humans have our habits (cell phone addiction, socializing) birds do too. Your child can learn more about fascinating bird behaviors in our book, Birds for the Young Naturalist. Here, we’ve summarized the behaviors you and your child are most likely to encounter in the field.
Everybody knows that birds sing and build nests. These are extremely common behaviors. But birds do so much more! And decoding some of these everyday behaviors will help your child see the outdoors in a new and exciting way.
According to experts, as soon as a bird leaves its nest, it spends the rest of the day in search of food. Foraging for food for itself or its young is a bird's main priority every day and also what takes up most of its energy.
While you may think of feeding as birds eating seeds from a feeder, the truth is that different birds have their own unique ways of finding food and consuming it. Nature designed them via their beak size or other features to survive on a specific diet.
Foraging for a bird might mean scratching at the dirt to loosen up seeds, bugs or other food like you will see the American robin do on lawns as they stop, look, listen, walk a few paces and suddenly pounce on an unsuspecting worm. While other birds such as chickadees or nuthatches will find their food such as insects or seeds from a tree trunk, branch, or leaves. 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.
Further up in the canopy of the trees, you will find treetop birds like warblers. These birds are busy eating insects and spiders.
Beyond the trees are the acrobatic aerial feeders such as swallows and swifts who catch insects literally on the fly. Once these species of birds find a foraging site, they will set up shop right next to the spot. Be sure to look for their nesting sites in areas such as ponds and open fields with lots of insect activity.
One of the more exciting foraging behaviors can be seen by predatory birds like hawks, owls, and eagles. Some of these species will perch on a tree and wait for the right moment to pounce on prey such as mammals or smaller birds. Others will soar high overhead looking for signs of movement below and then nosedive down to catch their prey at incredible speeds.
Of course, water birds are fascinating to watch as they hunt and gather. From the skilled dive of the tern to the foot coordination of the Piping Plover, there is a wide array of hunting behavior in birds that depend on aquatic creatures for food. One of the most interesting may be the Black Heron, which spreads its wings like an umbrella over its head to help find prey. Experts guess the shade may attract fish and help the heron see into the water without the sun’s bright reflection. You have to check this out!
A pro tip for finding foraging birds is to go to a location that is rich in food. That could be a pond, a picnic area or a bird feeding station. If a bird finds a location that’s rich in food, it will go there every day, hanging around that feeder all day long.
Birds eventually have to stop foraging and rest. One of the most common behaviors you’re likely to see when a bird stands still is preening, or cleaning itself. Birds need to keep their feathers clean and in top condition for flying and also to keep them warm so they spend a lot of time doing this. One of the most important reasons they preen: to help get rid of parasites.
You’re likely to see preening nearby a water source such as a birdbath, puddle, pond.
Preening gets upgraded with waterbirds like ducks and cormorants. These birds have a special gland near their tail that makes oil. They rub that oil on their feathers to make them waterproof.
Birds have some amazing behaviors to keep themselves cool or warm. Just like dogs, wild birds will open their bills and pant to help dissipate heat on a hot day. As they get hotter, their panting may increase in speed, or they may open their bills even further for greater cooling. When a cool breeze provides some relief from the heat, birds may puff out their feathers or flutter their wings to let the circulating air reach their hot skin. They may also hold their wings away from their bodies to lower their body temperature.
Herons adopt a signature posture on sunny days: wings drooped, partly spread, and slightly upturned, exposing the underside of the wings to the sun. This is called “delta-wing” posture. Experts guess that it might help with regulating body temperature, or it might help to dislodge mites or other small parasites.
Birds of prey like hawks and falcons have their own behavior for keeping cool on hot days. They can soar at higher altitudes on the hottest days. This is smart because air temperatures are much colder at great altitudes, which keeps the birds cooler.
Similar to people who may cuddle for warmth, small birds like tree swallows crowd together in shrubs, vines, and evergreen trees to share body heat. Larger birds like American crows and ring-billed gulls are also known to flock together for warmth.
If you’ve seen water birds like ducks, geese, pelicans, gulls, and swans on cold days in a pond or other bodies of water, you may have noticed that they have amazing abilities to stand on one leg. This isn’t meant to practice their balance. It is actually a way for them to conserve their body heat on a, particularly cold day by exposing less of their body to the cold water.
Birds are very territorial critters. Those bird songs you hear? Often to establish territory. Birds compete to obtain the very best territory for feeding and bringing up their young. And territorial behavior is most common during spring as birds are getting ready to mate.
Birds will actually yell, scream, chase, and on rare occasions physically fight with each other to maintain their boundaries. Different species have different sizes of territory and show varying levels of aggression. Surprisingly, robins have a reputation for being fiercely territorial and will go to great lengths to defend their territory. In larger birds, territorial behavior can also be expressed by the eagle or a large soaring hawk circling high over their territory.
Courtship, the time when birds pair up right before mating, takes up a lot of a bird's time. This behavior can take on a multitude of displays in the bird world depending on the species. It can be as simple as simply spending more time together or as elaborate as fancy dances with full feather displays. Singing, flying, dancing, and bringing food are all part of the courtship repertoire.
One of the most typical courtship behaviors is singing. Much like our reality talent shows, whoever has the best tune wins. Female birds will in fact choose their mate based on the quality of their song. And so male birds use up all their energy belting out a song to prove they are the strongest and fittest of the bunch, indicating they are the best candidate to bring up young.
Naturally what follows courtship is mating. 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 and can be quite difficult to see. But it typically looks like one bird on top of the other like the rock doves are displaying for us above 🙂
After mating, birds will need a place for their young to grow safely. Nesting— a wonderful behavior to witness. During this busy and important time, birds will fly from place to place, busily gathering “just right” nesting materials to build their nest. You’ll see materials such as twigs, wool, grass and moss stuffed into their beaks as they fly by. As fascinating as this behavior is to spot, always give birds their space when you see them nesting because this is a stressful time of year.
Mobbing & Predator Evasion
Birds may seem calm and quiet to us, but don’t let them fool you. Birds can and will make their anger known to predators and other threats in loud, aggressive ways. 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.
Birds are super smart when it comes to warding off large predators like raccoons, snakes or other larger birds. They resort to the power of mobbing. Mobbing is when a group of birds works together to aggressively chase away predators, and sometimes they will even peck at the predator to make their point known.
Your child is sure to adore observing fledging behavior. A fledgling is a juvenile bird that has outgrown the hatchling and nesting stages but may not have learned to fly yet. And fledging is the stage in a flying animal's life between hatching or birth and becoming capable of flight. Very soon after the young have left the nest, they are ready to test out their wings. Of course, under the close supervision of a parent! When they are fledging, you can see the juveniles following their parents around, shaking their wings and making constant begging calls for food. These little ones will sometimes appear almost groggy and clumsy as they test out their wings and head out for their first attempts at flight.
It’s not uncommon to see fledgling birds on the ground since many species of birds push their fledgling young out of the nest to help them become independent. The best thing to do is to leave the fledgling alone as it learns to fly after you’ve made sure that the area it’s in is safe. If the fledgling is injured, though, contact a wildlife rehabilitator
As summer ends and migration is near, you might start to notice that large groups of birds are becoming more common. This is the start of flocking or when birds come together as a large group.
Flocks provide birds with safety in numbers. The idea is that they are vulnerable to predators alone. But as a group, they can signal to each other, find food, confuse predators or simply, provide a better chance to the individual of not being picked off and eaten! As a flock, birds look for food, rest, or fly together. Often you will see them flying in a flock or resting in trees or fields together. Some bird flocks fly in patterns. Geese fly in V-shapes. Starling flocks make cool shapes as they dodge predators.
Migration & Seasonal Movement
When the time is right to head off to summer or winter grounds, flocks of birds will head off on their bi-annual migrations. This is an exciting time for birders, as they will identify species that are flying through.
Tuning in to bird behavior is a rewarding way for you and your child to spend your time. And while it requires a certain amount of patience, time, and observation skill, it's worth it! To make your bird behavior time even more kid-friendly, download our Decoding Birds Activity Kit!