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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.

As we learn this, it is helpful not just for identifying the birds that we find in those places but also for finding the birds in the first place. Seeing a certain kind of habitat will trigger the idea that “this looks like a good place for species x,” leading us to search for that species. Any bird using that habitat niche will draw our attention.

Much of this happens at a subconscious level, creating expectations for certain species. Those species become top candidates in our mind, and we identify them more quickly knowing that they are likely to be present. At the same time, we have to understand the inherent uncertainty. Habitat is not a reliable field mark on its own, but it plays an important role in every identification we make. That ambiguity can be hard to grasp, but a successful birder will be able to use habitat as a clue and also quickly set it aside when necessary.


This happens most often during migration, when physical stress and unfamiliar surroundings can cause birds to break their own habitat rules. Some migrants find themselves in a situation with limited habitat options and have to make do. In other cases, the need for food lures birds into settings they would normally shun. You still won’t find a sandpiper in a hedgerow, but sparrows can end up on mudflats. Common Yellowthroats and White-throated Sparrows (usually found in low dense undergrowth) may forage high in the crowns of flowering oak trees, while warblers and tanagers (normally found in the treetops) may hop around on lawns or beaches.

In terms of bird identification, it’s important to be ready for this kind of abnormal behavior. Recognizing it and understanding what’s happening gives us a glimpse into the epic journeys of birds.

A version of this article was published in the March/April 2019 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 


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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), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). 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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