David Sibley: You can recognize groups of birds by the way they move

MAKING AN ENTRANCE: In these sketches of a goldfinch (top), sparrow (center), and Blue Jay (bottom), blue lines indicate flight paths and landing hops. Green lines show how the different birds typically move on the ground. Artwork by David Allen Sibley.
MAKING AN ENTRANCE: In these sketches of a goldfinch (top), sparrow (center), and Blue Jay (bottom), blue lines indicate flight paths and landing hops. Green lines show how the different birds typically move on the ground. Artwork by David Allen Sibley.

Experienced birders can often identify a bird after seeing only a flash of movement. The way a bird moves from perch to perch, how it uses its tail and wings when landing, the spring in its step — all can trigger recognition.

Any birder should be able to appreciate this point. You only need to think of a woodpecker or hummingbird to realize that you already know two types of birds with distinctive and instantly recognizable movements. Chickadees, jays, wrens, doves, sparrows, thrushes — each group has its unique gait and style.

The movements don’t get much attention in field guides because they happen quickly, and they’re hard to convey in printed images and text. They are also mostly group characteristics. That is, the way a bird moves will allow you to identify it as a woodpecker or jay, but not which woodpecker or which jay. That doesn’t make the features any less useful; it just means that the field guide isn’t a good format for presenting them.

In the sketches above, I’ve tried to show typical movements of a jay, sparrow, and finch just after landing on the ground near a feeder.

Jays (bottom) are bigger and heavier birds, and their size will usually be clear in their movements. They swoop in boldly and confidently, and usually hit the ground and “bounce,” making one or two long hops. (This dramatic entrance usually has the effect of scattering any smaller birds nearby.) A jay will then survey the scene, move around with big hops to gather seeds, and soon leave.

Sparrows (center), including familiar species like White-crowned Sparrow and Song Sparrow, also bounce on landing, but they’re smaller birds. They make a couple of quick hops as they come to a stop, move around the feeding area quickly and easily with athletic hops, and often make a series of rapid hops that carry them several feet across the ground.

Goldfinches (top), like other finches, tend to land firmly and stay put. They might occasionally make a few short hops to move to a different area, but for the most part, they stay in one spot and eat seeds within reach.

There are always exceptions, and other species add lots of subtle variations, but just watching the movements of birds will lead to a better understanding and more discoveries.

 

This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of BirdWatching.

 

New to birdwatching?

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, descriptions of birding hotspots, and more delivered to your inbox every other week. Sign up now.

See the contents of our current issue.

How to subscribe to BirdWatching.

 

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free
David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

David Sibley on social media