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Understanding birds’ habitat can help you identify them

A migrant Wilson’s Warbler in atypical habitat, foraging on an open lawn during migration. Art by David Sibley

Beginning birders quickly learn the concept of habitat preferences. It’s a pretty straightforward idea — each species seeks out a place with a particular set of conditions and spends its time there. This is helpful for identification at a very basic level, and as we gain experience, we continue to refine our knowledge of birds’ preferences (and our ability to distinguish subtle differences in habitat).

For a beginner, it’s helpful to know that you should look for sandpipers on mudflats and sparrows in hedgerows, never the other way around. More experienced birders learn that each sandpiper species likes different kinds of mudflats, and sparrows tend to sort themselves out around the hedgerow.

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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.

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