The way birds fly and move through the foliage can help you identify them

how birds fly

Identifying small songbirds is always difficult, so any clue that helps narrow down the possibilities can be invaluable. A very common experience is to see a small bird fly through an opening and then into a tree or shrub, where it is hidden by leaves. Is it just another chickadee, or is it worth following to try and get a better view? The way the bird flies and the way it moves through the foliage offer subtle but simple clues that can help answer these questions and put you on the path to identifying it faster.

How does it fly? All small songbirds fly with alternating short bursts of rapid wing beats and very short glides with the wings closed against the body. This is the same pattern that gives woodpeckers and finches their strongly undulating flight path, and all small songbirds have more or less undulating flight. In woodpeckers and finches, the “glide” phase is relatively long, so they descend more and the pause in the beat is more noticeable. In other songbirds, the glide phase is shorter, so they have faster, shallower undulations. Warblers tend to veer from side to side when flying.

What is he doing in the foliage? Once a bird lands, how it moves within a minute or two can be a clue to its identity. Insectivores like warblers and kinglets are very active and usually don’t stay still for more than a few seconds at a time. Even when they remain on the same perch, they flap their wings or tail, or turn from side to side. Seed-eating birds like sparrows or gleaners like chickadees and vireos tend to stay still for longer periods of time and they are less “hopping” when sitting.

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These are subtle differences, and they depend on weather conditions, the bird’s motivation, and other variables, so your identifications based on these clues will never be certain. But as a quick assessment to place a bird in a general group, it can be useful, and observing these differences will reveal other subtle clues and increase your understanding of variations in bird flight and behavior.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of BirdWatching.

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