Backyard bird watching really is one of the most enjoyable ways to interact with nature without leaving home. There are many excellent articles and books about getting started with backyard birding, including my own post on Setting Up Bird Feeders and Attracting Birds to Your Yard. But there are plenty of fascinating things about backyard bird watching you might now know. If you’re just getting started, here are some surprising things you need to know about backyard birds.
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Bird populations change throughout the year.
This might be the most important thing you need to know about backyard birds. Some birds are migratory, meaning they spend winter in one location and then travel to another area for the summer breeding season. Depending on your location, you may see a migratory species in the winter or summer only. Or only in the fall or spring when they are passing through. It’s important to understand which birds that live in your area all year long and which are seasonal or transitory visitors. You don’t want to put oranges our for Baltimore Orioles if they only come to your area in summer!
Hummingbirds are one of the most famous migratory bird species. In North America, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird’s return in the late spring is a source of joy to many. It’s a sure sign that summer is imminent.
Even your non-migratory backyard birds might come and go through the year, though. While the resident birds likely don’t leave the area entirely, you might notice that you don’t see much of a particular species in the summer, for example.
There are many reasons for this, such as:
- Changes in food supply – birds that live on insects in the warmer months might not visit your yard or feeders as much in the summer, especially if you spray for insects or use a lot of pesticides. Even in a bird friendly yard, these birds simply don’t need the supplemental food as much. They DO still need water, though, so if you’re missing some of your usual guests, make sure there’s plenty of fresh, clean water for them.
- Seasonal habit – as trees grow and then shed leaves, or as plants burst out of the ground, the habitat and environment change. For some species, the sparse winter coverage is simply not as safe or appealing as another area.
- Breeding and nesting needs – In the spring and summer, birds have one thing on their mind: breeding! To that end, they will spend time in areas that are likely to lead to successful mating or that provide safe and appealing nest sites. Areas that are very loud or full of activity aren’t appealing to breeding birds. The noise makes it hard for them to communicate and the activity can make the area feel unsafe.
- Molting – most birds lose all or most of their feather once breeding season is over. During this time, they are more vulnerable to predators. As a result, birds who are molting tend to be more reclusive. They’re probably still visiting your yard or feeders, but they may do so earlier or later in the day, and their visits are likely to be much shorter. A molting bird doesn’t usually perch and sing, for example, so you may not notice their presence.
By the way, these binoculars are excellent for the beginning bird watcher! If you don’t have a pair, it’s worth picking up a modest but good quality pair like these. They’ll make it far easier to watch and identify the birds in your yard, and they’re lightweight enough to walk and hike with.
The males, females, and juveniles of a species can look almost identical. Or they can look completely different.
The Northern Cardinal is one of the most famous examples of sexual dimorphism in a species. Many people know that male cardinals are bright red, but they might not realize female cardinals are light brown, with a bright orange beak. Juvenile cardinals looks more like adult females than adult males, but still have a distinct appearance.
Cooper’s hawks have very similar markings but the females are significantly larger. On the other hand, blue jays have no obvious sexual dimorphism. Some species, like the Pileated Woodpecker have only slight differences in markings and you really have to get a good look to tell the two sexes apart.
Understanding the variations among a specie relating to age or sex will help you more reliably identify and track visitors to your backyard.
Keep in mind that most bird identification apps or birdwatching books will feature the male bird first. For less common species, this can make it easy to misidentify or overlook female or juvenile birds.
Here’s a real-life example of sexual dimorphism in backyard birds.
When I first started paying attention to the birds in my yard, I quickly identified the house sparrows. There were tons of them and they’re quite distinctive. But there was this other, rather boring brown bird that I could not identify. I spent weeks trying to figure out what it was. There were tons of them, so I couldn’t understand why it was impossible to find similar birds in the Audubon app. Reader, they were female house sparrows. The reason I couldn’t identify them was because the app showed the much more distinctive male house sparrow. I didn’t correctly id the girls until I went through each and every species in the app and swiped through all of the age and sex variations.
Now, of course, I know better. The first thing I do if I’m trying to identify a bird s is check all the variations. And you won’t always see a mated pair, so it’s not always obvious that you have a female or juvenile bird.
Birds can look completely different sometimes
One of the most important things you need to know about backyard birds is that their appearance changes. Common backyard bird species can take on a dramatically different appearance during rain or after a bath. A sparrow you see all the time might look much darker and even a different size when soaked. If you only catch a glimpse of it, it can be easy to think you’ve got a new species. Next time it rains, spend a little time looking at the birds. You may be surprised by how much it changes their appearance. Once you start to notice the differences, it’s much easier to realize you’re just seeing the usual crowd at your feeder.
During seasonal molt, birds often have missing feathers. Though most still retain enough plumage to be identified, their silhouette or color can be notably different, especially if you don’t get a clear look at them.
Finally, some birds sport a much drabber appearance in the off season. A non-breeding male American Goldfinch looks drastically different without the bright yellow that characterizes its summer plumage.
It’s useful to understand the ways a bird’s appearance can change over the season in order to correctly identify your visitors. Understanding the normal range of appearance can also help you spot a rare mutation or signs of injury or illness. Conversely, if you know your resident cardinal loses his crest feathers every summer, you won’t be alarmed when he shows up with a bald head!
Birds Don’t Always Get the Memo on What They’re “Supposed” to Eat or Like
Any article or book on birdwatching will be full of advice on bird behavior and bird preferences. If you type in “How to attract X bird” the article will surely include a list of the species’ preferred foods and a description of how they prefer to feed. See my own article on attracting American goldfinches as an example. This is very important and useful information and it’s likely to be true for most birds in most places. But….
Birds don’t read the guidebooks.
While it’s true that there are a lot of accurate generalizations about habits and behavior, birds are capable of individual actions. For example, it’s a good idea to use an upside down suet feeder if you want to feed woodpeckers while keeping pests like sparrows from devouring expensive suet. The reason is that woodpeckers are happy to climb all over a food source and don’t mind eating while hanging upside down. Sparrows, on the other hand, will not perch upside down to eat. Problem solved! Until you realize that some sparrows will eventually learn to tolerate an uncomfortable feeding position if it means they get suet. I’ve looked out to see a sparrow clinging awkwardly on the underside of the suet feeder while the downy woodpecker is happily chomping away on a seed ball.
The point is that animals are individuals and they will respond individually to environmental stimuli. While you can (and should) base your plans and expectations on the broad trends in specie behavior, be prepared to see some surprising things once in awhile. These oddities are part of what makes birdwatching so fascinating!
Here are two of the best books on bird behavior, if you’re interested in learning more about how birds learn and respond to the environment.
Bird Behavior Can Help you Spot Other Birds
If you’re watching the yard and all the birds suddenly fly off, that’s a good indication something is going on. It could be a strange noise, or a person getting to close or….it could mean a raptor just landed on a nearby tree! When you notice the birds in your area behaving differently, it’s a good idea to take a look around and see if you can spot anything unusual.
It’s not just a prey and predator interaction, either. Sometimes, you might hear an unusual bird noise. That can actually be an indication that there’s a new bird in the area – it may or may not be the same species as the noisemaker. Birds will often vocalize, especially during mating season, to either greet or repel new birds. Listening for these distinct sounds can help you spot newcomers.
It’s not just visual behavior!
Birds show incredible cooperation, even with other species. This is especially true if there is a threat, like a bird of prey. Have you ever seen a motley crew of songbirds, especially blue jays, mockingbirds and crows, flying around an area and shrieking? That’s mobbing and it’s how smaller birds drive out threatening creatures. While the threat will sometimes be easy to spot (hello, giant hawk on the light pole!) other times, you’ll really have to look to see what’s driving the activity. And don’t be surprised if prolonged mobbing summons other birds to the area, too.
Do you keep seeing a bird visit your feeder, take a seed and fly off, only to return a few minutes later and repeat? They are likely taking food to a nestmate or hatchlings nearby. Try to see where the bird goes. You might be able to spot a reclusive mate or nesting area. Note that if you are lucky enough to have a nesting site nearby, keep away from the nest. Birds need to feel safe and secure and even a well-intentioned attempt to look closer can panic the birds.
Noticing and understanding territorial, defensive and social behaviors is a great way to dig deeper into birdwatching, in addition to helping you spot other birds.
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