Penguins don’t live in forests, woodpeckers don’t live at sea, and arctic terns don’t make cacti nests. These are extreme examples, but identifying a bird based on habitat is a great skill to develop. Welcome to the final part of our Bird ID Guide!
When considering habitat, do remember that it is very important to take into account the time of year. Many birds simply just won’t be there in the winter or summer. You may think that large white bird flapping in the distance over the fields somewhere in central Europe in December was a white stork, but truth is it was probably a great egret, as the storks left at the end of summer and are holidaying in Africa, and won’t be back in Europe until March or so. In America, most of the teeming populations of flycatchers, warblers, thrushes, and hummingbirds head south at summer’s end, many to tropical lands but some will still be around in the southernmost states. Only one hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, is resident, instead choosing to stay along the Pacific coast all year round.
Of course, due to the fact that birds actually fly, it is always possible the bird you are trying to ID is “just passing through”, especially if they are doing just that as they migrate, but most of the time the habitat in which you spot a bird is often an excellent clue to establishing its identity. You’ll usually find egrets near some kind of waterway, and you can expect to find small birds like buntings or twites in open fields. Understanding which types of birds depend on what type of habitat is a very useful lesson to learn.
The habitat in which you spot a bird is often an excellent clue to establishing its identity.
A good field guide will usually have brief sections on a bird’s life cycle – what it looks like, what it eats, how it sounds, when it breeds; and where it lives. Have a good check before you buy, as all of that information is essential for identifying birds correctly. One element missing and you could be left pondering between a few choices. A really good field guide also indicates if the bird is a resident or if it migrates, and if so, where to and at what time of year.
There are four main types of habitat: woodland made up of coniferous or deciduous trees; aquatic, such as lakes, ponds, swamps, marshes, oceans, and shorelines; scrub / shrub habitat where woody plants like gorse dominate; and open “uncluttered” habitats like farmland, grasslands, heathland, moors, and tundra.
Looking closer still at the composite elements of the habitat will help you narrow it down even further: pine forests will hold different birds to oak and beech forests. Forests are made up of layers of different types of plants, and therefore different birds will inhabit different heights. It is rare to see a treecreeper picking through brush and leaf litter, for instance, although in very harsh winters they have been seen visiting feeders. Similarly, with aquatic habitats, bogs are as far removed from the coastal shoreline as you can get, but both exist in the same category; open habitats can refer to parking lots as well as a freshly tilled field.
Make a note of any surrounding environments like hedges or reed beds, as this can influence the type of bird seen. Many flycatchers look alike, but some will only hang out near certain features – in the US, willow flycatchers will pause by streams edged with, you guessed it, willow, whereas least flycatchers can be seen along the outskirts of orchards. In Europe, the spotted flycatcher will brazenly alight atop a fence bordering an open garden, but pied flycatchers will be deep in the forests. Narrowing down the range of environment can be very helpful when sorting through your ID possibilities, and can sometimes be far more useful than peering through binoculars at field marks, trying to figure out if that is an eye stripe or a shadow.
When considering habitat, it is very important to also take into account the time of year.
It is with these thoughts in mind that you can review your own backyard if you have one. Most people will have a flat area of grass, some low-level plants, and maybe a tree or two. Some people will have many trees, fruit or nut bearing, which to birds like jays and woodpeckers is just as good as acres of forest. Do you have a small stocked fishpond? Keep an eye out for herons or storks coming by (and maybe put some netting across). If you provide enough variations in resources such as shelter, food and water, you could cross over several types of habitat, and attract many different species of birds.
Play it by ear
Paying attention to habitat can also help with identifying birds by sound, another useful skill to learn but one which may be the trickiest of all. Some birds have very clear, loud and distinct calls and songs, but many others are mostly silent unless startled and giving a warning signal, which is usually completely different to their “normal” song. But familiarising yourself with the songs and calls of your most likely nearby birds is a good idea before you head out. There are ample online resources of bird recordings, with this one being among my favourites. You can even tell the difference between woodpeckers by the sound of their drumming during the breeding season; there could be up to six different species just within a mile of each other in a typical north American woodland, but listen closely and you may hear the deep booming drum of a pileated woodpecker as it gets faster and quieter towards the end, or the short and steady even drum of a downy woodpecker.
Paying attention to habitat can also help with identifying birds by sound.
Then there’s those birds who like to mix things up for us by choosing different habitats at different times of the year. The common loon will inhabit ponds surrounded by forests in the summer, but then switch to open bays or lakes in the winter. Take your time when researching what that bird could be, and if you’re absolutely sure what it is but the habitat doesn’t fit, consider that there’s just more you need to know.
Keep off the grass
Learning about habitats to help you ID birds is also a great way to increase your awareness of how habitats help birds, and how any threats to those places will have an effect. Some birds nest on open grasslands, areas of the planet that many people think have no real use except for building on, but these species face a dire future if this keeps happening. The more we understand about habitats the more effective we are in protecting them, and by extension, all of those wonderful birds who rely on them for their survival.