Identifying small songbirds by flight style

It’s easy. Experienced birders do it subconsciously, using clues from the wingbeats, rhythm, and path of a bird’s flight. These are usually described in vague terms – the roller-coaster flight of a goldfinch, the slightly undulating flight of a blackbird – but I don’t know of any published effort to really define what is different about each species. To remedy that I thought I would make a start here on a more objective and detailed description of bird flight.

There are several things to watch for:

  1. The path of the bird through the air, does it travel in a straight line, swoop up and down with bursts of wingbeats, or dart about on an erratic path?
  2. How many wingbeats are in each burst, and how long is the subsequent pause? Try to get a rough sense of how much of the bird’s time in the air is spent flapping.
  3. How does it approach the landing? Different species deal with braking and landing in different ways, and this can offer some really good clues for identification.

Three species are shown here as examples, watch for these differences and more, and you’ll discover a wealth of new identification clues.

Song Sparrow flight path. Gouache, pencil, and digital drawing copyright David Sibley.

Song Sparrow (like all Emberizine sparrows) has a flowing and bounding flight style, a few irregular quick wingbeats are followed by a short swooping glide without fully closing the wings. On short flights the tail is pumped vigorously up and down along with each set of wingbeats. As it approaches the landing the bird simply swoops up, swings the tail forward to brake, reaches out with the feet and grabs the perch. A flock of Song, White-throated, White-crowned, etc sparrows all “dive” straight into cover very quickly.

House Sparrow flight path. Gouache, pencil, and digital drawing copyright David Sibley.

House Sparrow has a more labored and direct flight, with bursts of quick wingbeats and relatively short freefalls. It follows a path with little undualtion and none of the swooping and tail-pumping of Song. When approaching its landing a House Sparrow flaps more quickly and almost hovers before stalling onto the perch. Almost as if the feet are useless and it has to set itself on the perch using just its wings. When a flock flies up into a hedge they hover and buzz around the perches momentarily like a swarm of bees, rather than diving straight in.

Common Redpoll flight path. Gouache, pencil, and digital drawing copyright David Sibley.

Common Redpoll (like all the small finches) has a strongly undulating flight often described as “bounding” or a “rollercoaster”. This path results from the bird giving a very short burst of wingbeats and rising quickly, then folding the wings into a relatively long freefall. Slight changes of direction with each burst of wingbeats give it a subtle zigzag path very different from the straight-ahead path of House Sparrow and some others. When approaching a landing the redpoll swoops, gives just one or two correcting or braking wing flaps, and grabs the perch.

11 thoughts on “Identifying small songbirds by flight style”

  1. This is fun. When I was a young birder and learning things from those more experienced, it was explained to me that Song Sparrows have a very long tail and fly like it gets in the way, pumping it, as you say, in flight as if it’s a burden for them to drag it along behind them.

    It’s a simple silly sort of explanation, but it’s always stuck with me such that I always bring it up when leading bird walks and such to great affect. By the end several people are usually able to recognize Song Sparrows at a distance as they’re flushed. Great stuff.

    1. Thanks for passing that along Nate, those sorts of descriptions are so helpful for learning and for describing subjective things, it would make a fun book – a field guide using colorful descriptions and metaphors. Come to think of it, that’s just the sort of content Pete Dunne was trying for in his Field Guide Companion, so there already is a book!

  2. Great stuff! I always threaten that I’m going to write a field guide to birds in flight. If only I had an advance from a publisher…

    As a pelagic birder I became intimately familiar with the flight style of West Coast seabirds, and learned how to describe the flight so that others could learn (my other partially completed and abandoned book–“Seabirds in flight: tails of fleeing alcids”).

    As an example of separating starlings and cedar waxwings in flight, as well as the terms for describing flight style for ID, please see: “Nature Journal: Separating Cedar Waxwings from European Starlings in flight”:
    http://nwbackyardbirder.blogspot.com/2010/08/nature-journal-separating-cedar.html

    Greg Gillson

    1. Hi Greg, Thanks for sending the link to your excellent discussion of waxwings and starlings. It’s obvious that we are thinking along very similar lines! I hope to add more species to this topic over time, so maybe the “field guide to birds in flight” will develop slowly.

  3. As a relatively inexperienced birder, I decided to spend the winter studying the local birds for all ID clues that aren’t color, shape, or size. I found I picked up on flight behavior pretty quickly when I was concentrating on ignoring “field marks” for a change. So, when can I pre-order the “Sibley Guide to Bird Flight”? 🙂

    1. Well done Kirby! I remember meeting Swedish birder Per Alstrom at Cape May many years ago, when we were both barely out of our teens, and he told me he was consciously trying not to use his binoculars to identify birds. I was stunned, since as an artist I always wanted to try to see as much detail as possible, but then I understood his point, and since then I’ve tried to keep that in mind. You see different things when you look from a distance, and, paradoxically, it can be very revealing to see something in less detail.

  4. No, no, no, it should not be a “guide”, it should be an electronic guide. Seriously, imagine an app that has little, stylized black and white animations of raptors, petrels, shearwaters, etc, showing their typical wingbeats and flight patters. Just as with songs and sounds, we now have the possibility to do away with ambiguous descriptions and instead directly show what is meant. I would be willing to pay big bucks for such an eguide.

  5. Tauheed Ullah

    Very helpful information and milky discussion about birds identification for a student like me having no field guide, binocular and other necessary accessories for proper bird watching. Sir! can you please add some more about birds?

  6. Pingback: Pedga Blog

  7. This is very helpful. It seems like we are on the migration path for some song birds. There are also some bluebirds that have nested and wintered here and I have seen them fly with pretty much constant wing beats. Yesterday, we saw a flock of small birds flying overhead that flew with constant wing beats, but couldn’t see details.

    Are there other small birds that move in flocks with constant wing beats that may be flying through Rhode Island this time of year? Or can we assume they are bluebirds? Thank you.

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