Learning Bird Behavior: Advice From Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The following is advice from the eCornell course we took on “Courtship and Rivalry In Birds”. We thought it would be perfect for birders who want to really get into learning and observing bird behavior.

  • Watch carefully; even small actions can carry big messages.
  • Don’t be dazzled by the flash. Look past the most obvious actions for other clues to what is happening.
  • Be aware of the difference between observation and inference. Separate what you actually saw from what you concluded or assumed.
  • Try to figure out what category of behavior you are watching. Foraging? Social behavior? Nesting?
  • Draw or describe the displays you see structurally. What postures, movements, sounds, and plumages are involved?
  • Try to identify individuals. Which birds are doing what? Who is communicating with whom?
  • Try to figure out age and sex of the birds involved.
  • Keep an eye out for multiple pairings. Don’t assume one male for one female.
  • Think about what kinds of information would answer a question at the level you are actually interested in. What information would support your inferences?
  • Try to infer about function of displays based on form. What are the birds highlighting or minimizing?
  • Consider how a behavior might be appropriate for the environment in which the bird lives. How might it improve the bird’s chances of surviving and producing young?
  • Find out some background information on the species that interest you most. Who feeds the young? What do they eat? Who competes with whom for what? What kind of a mating system do they have?
  • Figure out what time of year behaviors and displays happen in species you’re interested in. Ask yourself whether your conclusions would be appropriate or unusual for the time of year.
  • Be skeptical of things that aren’t consistent with what you’re observing, even if they are published.
  • Be skeptical of things you infer that aren’t consistent with what is published.
  • If all else fails, take detailed, understandable notes on what, how many, when, where, who, and in what order!

Another session of the “Courtship and Rivalry in Birds” course begins January 6, 2010. We suggest you sign up!!

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