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Grouping Birds


Grouping birds can be entirely subjective by the observer, but most families of birds have their own distinct behaviors and field marks for grouping. In the MB class, we used this grouping concept for sparrows…. Does it have a streaked breast or a clear breast? But think about all the others ways there are of grouping. Is it observed on the ground in short grass pastureland, or is it on a hedgerow or perhaps in a tree? Is it on a telephone wire? Is it flying short distances as you flush it from the grass? In other words, grouping can be done by behavior and habitat just as easily as a field mark. And in the case of habitat, you can make identification assumptions quickly and almost subconsciously.

This may not come to you immediately when you’re trying to identify a bird in the field. In some ways, behavior is a product of the subconscious. You see the same things over and over and you file it away mentally as a kind of trait of a specific species. While observers frequently get caught up with things like wing bars and breast color for identification, there’s a pay-off if you can bring this new behavioral information to your conscious mind more quickly. In this respect, it also means your field guide comments are as important as the pictures of the birds, because hidden in the field guide text is some of the best information for identification. Behavior like “tail-pumping” or habitat information like, “usually only seen in short grass” can be truly critical information when you mentally have to put together all the information for identification.

Think for a minute how many birds you've actually seen on a telephone wire. While you've probably seen thousands, the actual inventory of species diversity is really pretty small – doves, a few tyrant flycatchers, some raptors, some blackbirds, ravens and crows, a few domesticated birds… and then the inventory gets quite small. The fact is, relatively few birds are comfortable on a wire. Conversely, many bird species are equally uncomfortable being on flat ground. Swallows, for example, are almost never found on flat ground unless they are actively seeking mud or other nest material. Longspurs, on the other hand, make part of their living on the ground. Most birds have a specific site-fidelity. They do not pick their spots casually.

As a rule, bird species are remarkably consistent in their behaviors. Specific birds like to do the same types of things over and over. They feed the same way, they escape danger the same way, they have specific mannerisms when they fly, they have the same mating rituals, and of course they have the same inventory of sounds and calls. In the field, much of this information can be collected at once if you allow yourself the luxury of asking “what is it doing?” rather than “what is it?”