Introduction to Birding: Interpreting Bird Behavior

Brandwein Nature Learning Preserve

   Introduction to Birding: Interpreting Bird Behavior

Essential Questions:How can we make sense of our bird behavior observations?       Why watch birds?


In animals, behaviors can be inborn (genetic), learned or a combination of both. Whatever their source, behaviors are important adaptations for survival of the individual and the species. It is often easy and informative to observe and record behaviors in birds.

In this activity, students observe and interpret bird behavior. The data collected by the observer will provide insight into the “habitat” and “niche” of the bird species that were viewed. Refer to the suggested field guides for additional information on the bird species that you are observing.

National Science Education Standards

Content Standard A: As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

  • Understandings about scientific  inquiry.

Content Standard C: As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of:

  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms.

Student Learning Objectives

As a result of these activities, students will:

  • complete a scientific inquiry.
  • cite characteristics about animal behaviors and characteristics of organisms.
  • use binoculars effectively.

Materials List:

  • Copies of the Bird Behavior Data Sheets (below)
  • Field Guides to Birds (see Resources/References)
  • Clip board and pencil
  • Binoculars (optional but recommended)


Part I:  Develop a “species key” of birds that commonly appear at your site. (example; Chickadee = A; American Robin = B, etc.).  Identifying birds is challenging! Consult your local field guide and use the following to help you identify key field marks for the birds you observe:

Bird Parts

The diagram above can help you interpret the key features mentioned in your guide.

Part II:

Place an “x” in the appropriate boxes below the keyed letter for that bird species of all the behaviors you have observed while watching it. The collected field data will allow you to interpret the ecology and natural history of the birds observed.

Observations / Data Sheet

Bird Habitat and Behavior

 Name:                                                                                                Date:                                     


Weather Conditions:                                      

Species or Code Letter                
Time of Day                
ColorationDull / Bright                
Solitary (S) / Flocking (F)                
TERRITORIAL BEHAVIOR          -          -calling                
AUDITORY COMMUNICATION          -flocking calls                
          -pair antiphonal singing                
FEEDING BEHAVIORS          -hawking insects                        
          -gleaning foliage                
          -gleaning trunks                
          -eating fruits                
          -nectar from flowers                
          -following ant movements                
          -seed harvesting                
          -ground feeding                
Nest Construction                
Feeding Young                
Feeding Dependent Fledgling Young                
Tree Hopping                
Observed in Association with Species                

Observations and Inferences

  1. Is a particular species found only in a particular forest strata?
  2. What type of habitat and where is this bird found in the habitat (forest understory, ground?) and niche (what is the bird eating?) of that species?
  3. Is it usually found: in a mixed species flock? as a single species flock? solitary?
  4. Does it seem to have a territory? Does it overlap other species’ territories? Why/Why not?
  5. Other notes regarding observations


What evolutionary value do the behaviors you’ve observed have? Birds are genetically descendents of some of the dinosaur groups. Are there any behaviors that might have contributed to their success, or that are reminiscent of reptile behaviors?  Are there any behaviors that are good for the species but not for individuals? What questions cannot be answered by observations of single birds alone, but would require long term population studies?


Students often see behavioral observations as strictly qualitative activities. Quantitative measures can be added in two ways: First, adding time as a criterion (e.g.; tree hopping activities per hour), or second, evaluating the consistency of multiple observers. (Average the data tables of all observers, then determine the degree to which a single observer or group has seen what all observers saw.)


Students may research the significance of their observations in a number of ways. Here are some general notes that illustrate the type of information they might find:

General Notes on the Structure and Function of Bird Ecology

Distribution and Density

  1. 220 acres of Tropical Rain Forests may have 250 species of breeding birds (this is five times greater than temperate forests). At the Brandwein Nature Learning Preserve, 68 species of breeding birds have been recorded.  Among the 68 species are neotropical migratory birds that are also in tropical forests.
  1. Mixed neotropical flocks defend 10-12 acres of understory territories while mixed flocks located in the canopy defend 40-50 acres. Individual species show an extraordinary fidelity to a specific territory year after year. This is true for neotropical migrants as well, returning to the same Northern territory. The implications for conservation are enormous.
  1. What supports this diversity of birds found at your home site and/or Rutgers Creek?


4. Bird species are sensitive to distribution of vegetation and physical land-form features


Microhabitat Species
edge / shrubs Cat Bird, Yellow-billed Cuckoo
field Turkey, Blue Bird, Robin
floodplain Yellow Warbler
upland mature forest most species; insect eaters



 Binocular Basics

Any bird field guide for your region (Peterson, Golden Guide, Sibley series)

The Birder’s Handbook; Ehrlick, Dobkin, & Wheye (Simon and Schuster)

All About Birds:

Cornell Orthnithological Lab on Birds


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