Bird Behavior

Let’s learn about the lives of birds!

Bird behavior is one of the one of the most fascinating subjects in bird studies.  It takes the act of bird watching to the next level because we’re not just trying to identify a species of bird.  We’re also focusing on what is going on in the life of that bird.

Birds have so much more to them than just their name and when we really take the time to watch and get to know them in a high quality way, the world of birds opens up to show us unique individuals living their lives, raising families and struggling to survive.

Learning to watch for what is going on in the lives of birds teaches us so much about nature and its one of most exciting ways to connect with the natural world.

Making good observations about birds is something that everyone is capable of.  We don’t often exercise the skill of observation in the modern world but with a little bit of practice you’ll be amazed by what you can detect in the subtlety of bird behavior.

It’s incredible to realize just how much is going on around us all the time without us even noticing.

Watching and Listening

On the most basic level, there are only two simple steps to observing birds. All you have to do is practice these two steps over and over again.

Step one: Watch
Step two: Listen

That’s all there is to it!

If all you did was take 5 minutes everyday to sit outside watching and listening to the birds, in a few months time you would be noticing so much more than you are right now.

Of course, if you have some ideas for what to look for it can definitely speed up your learning process so I’ve made a basic guide to bird behavior below.

The best part of those two basic steps however is that you always have something to fall back on.  The birds are really going to be your best teachers and if you pay close attention, they will teach you everything you need to be a master bird observer.

So with watching and listening established, let’s look at some other points to speed up your learning journey and put you on the fast track to become a super perceptive bird nerd.

Behaviors to watch for

Here are some of the basic bird behaviors to look for.  Sometimes the actions of birds are very obvious but sometimes they can be quite subtle.  Just keep getting out there and eventually you’ll get it.

It’s helpful to have binoculars as you’re starting out because you can see the birds much more closely.

Foraging

Watch for birds on the lawn hunting for worms, or gleaning tasty insects off the branches of a tree.  This is one of the first behaviors you’ll be able to pick up on because it’s so common.

Can you figure out what they’re eating?

Territorial behavior

Especially in spring time birds will set up territories and defend them from other birds.  You’ll notice a lot of aggression between males as they fight with each other near the boundaries of their space.

It makes an awful racket and is quite easy to detect but can also be confused with alarm behavior.  If you see two members of the same species fighting, you’re probably seeing a territorial squabble.

Another behavior that is linked to territory is song.  When the birds start singing in spring, keep your eyes out for territorial behavior.

Courtship

There’s a lot of rich behavior to observe as the birds prepare to raise families.  A lot of birds have rituals or displays that they give around courtship.  It’s your first indicator that the birds are getting ready to start a family.

Courtship displays are pretty cool and can be quite subtle until you train your eyes to pay attention for it.  Some birds will feed each other.  Some will dance together and others will bob their heads back and forth rhythmically.

Nesting

In early spring, most of the birds you see will be getting ready to build a nest.  That means there are a lot of nests on the landscape.

It’s pretty amazing how good birds are at hiding their nests.  Watch for birds flying back and forth with nest material in their mouths, then later with food in their mouths as the nestlings hatch.

There are distinct behavioral changes at each stage as the nestlings get larger, leave the nest to start flocking.

Migration

It can be a lot of fun and very informative to track how populations of birds migrate.

Some birds are incredibly consistent with when they decide to migrate.   Really good watchers of bird behavior can sometimes predict right to the exact day when a particular species is likely to be coming through on their migration course.

Seasonal awareness

As you watch bird behavior, you’ll notice that there’s an even subtler layer beyond the specific actions that the birds are taking.

By making close observations year after year, you’ll start to notice differences in general bird activity that is linked to varying weather conditions, insect populations and other factors.

You’ll never get bored trying to figure out which factors are influencing bird behavior to be different from year to year.

This level of awareness with the birds will inform all your observations in nature and you’ll discover a whole new way of understanding how the birds are teaching you about the landscape.

Bird Language

Bird language is the communication system of birds as it applies to detecting the movements of predators in the landscape.

Some behaviors that occur around predators are quite obvious once you know what to look for.

The mobbing that occurs around an owl is a fairly simple bird language behavior that you can learn to detect.

But there are also deeper layers to bird language beyond the specific behaviors that you can learn to detect by understanding bird activity within the context of predator interactions.

With a deep knowledge of bird language, it becomes possible to follow the hidden movements of cats, hawks and other animals with incredible accuracy.

Keep Learning and Observing

Bird behavior is a fascinating practice that will never become stale but get more and more interesting the more you learn and the more you realize how much there is to learn.

It’s a great way to deepen your relationship to the birds and anybody can do it.

Happy Birding!

A Story of Bitterroot

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva, L. columbiana, L. pygmaea) was once a staple food for the Okanagan, Ktunaxa and Upper Nlaka’pamux People. It was the most important of all roots. Its bright and beautiful pink flowers bloom in June, adding a hue of colour and magic to the rocky ecosystem where it thrives. Years ago, it was once traded as a dried good, and was also eaten. The prime harvesting time was right before the flowers bloomed, when the outer part of the roots were still easy to peel off. Once processed, the root was roasted or steamed in steam pits and eaten.  It was also dried and stored for later consumption. Traditionally, it was dug using digging sticks, which were dug into the earth and used to pry up the roots. (As shown in picture below.)

Nowadays, bitterroot has become a rare sight due to overgrazing and the encroachment on its habitat by humans and cattle. To come across this beautiful plant is an honour, and this past June , in eastern Washington, I was fortunate enough to find huge patches.

Bitterroot thrives in the desert, on rocky patches, where it digs its roots into the hard, dry soil. To me, the colours of the desert (the ponderosa pine and sagebrush desert) always seem so stunning in their surroundings. Out of nowhere, among the dry, crackling grasses and the hard, red earth, are the bright pinks, yellows , blues and oranges of the wild flowers, as well as the glimpses of deeper blues and whites of our feathered friends, swooping overhead.

As I kneel down to connect with this plant, my digging stick in my hand, I think of all the other people who have dug this plant before me, who have relied on it for a source of food. I know that when I eat it, I am connecting further with this land, this desert. The more wildness I can bring into my body, the closer to the earth I become.  The earth continues to grow and change and live and die without us humans. We are not needed by the earth for its regeneration and well being. The more we use things from the earth, and make deep and meaningful connections, the greater our respect and reverence. As I walked and dug carefully, only harvesting a few plants from each patch, I felt the flowers blooming a little brighter.

In this desert rattlesnakes make their home, as well as mountain lions, coyotes, bighorn sheep and elk, and many other creatures. Plants adapt to only a few inches of rain per year by growing close to the ground and by minimal photosynthesising (hence the abundance of light green plants). Its a blessing to come across open streams and canyons, where the ecosystems change because of the amount of water present. Weaving our way through canyons and meadows, up steep mountains and cliffs, all to find our next source of water, our next source of food, our next place to sleep.

All photos by Steve Leckman.

For more information on bitterroot and desert plants, check out:

Food Plants of Interior First Peoples (Royal British Columbia Museum Handbook) by Nancy J. Turner

Plants of southern interior British Columbia and the inland northwest [Paperback] by Parish, Coupe and Lloyd