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Identification - Habitat

Identifying an unknown bird is often like solving a puzzle. Birds have evolved to take advantage of certain habitat niches. Long-legged birds with long, pointed bills are going to be great at spearing fish and really lousy at eating pine cones. So you would expect to find a Great Blue Heron or a Great Egret at the edge of a pond, not in a pine forest.

If you know a little about each bird's diet, foraging habits and evolutionary adaptations, you can predict the habitat where the bird will be found. You can make some good assumptions about diet simply by studying the shape of the bird's bill.

Birds that eat fish are going to be found near water while birds that eat primarily insects, are going to be found in fields or forests. In addition, the insect eating birds are going to migrate south if cold weather has reduced the number of insects. So a deciduous forest may be a great spot to look for a Red-eyed Vireo in June, but not in February.

You can use information about habitat to help you identify the birds you see. If you have a local checklist of birds, you will see that the list is in taxonomic order. This also means the list is generally in habitat order as well!

Loons Lakes, oceans
Seabirds Oceans
Ducks and Geese Ponds, wetlands
Herons Ponds, wetlands
Hawks Fields, woods
Sandpipers Shore, mudflats
Gulls and Terns Shore, oceans
Owls Forests
Hummingbirds Fields
Woodpeckers Forests
Perching birds Forests, fields

Use these general habitats to help identify unknown birds. But remember, during migration a bird may turn up almost anywhere!
Open Ocean
Ocean Shore
Woodlands
Lakes, Streams, Wetlands
Fields, Grasslands, Scrub
Tundra
Mountains, Cliffs
Desert
City, Suburbs
Bird Feeders

 

As you become more advanced, you will start to notice subtle habitat distinctions. For example,  Downy Woodpeckers are often found farther out on smaller limbs of a tree, while Hairy Woodpeckers are closer to the trunk on larger branches.

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