Bird Biology

There are approximately 10,000 bird species in the world, and learning about different bird families is the perfect way to sharpen identification skills, study similar birds and better appreciate avian diversity. The bird families below are organized by related characteristics to help you quickly identify and learn about the birds you see in your backyard, place of business or other location where bird control can help

  • Canada Goose

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      Bill: Black elongated triangle

      Size: 22-45 inches long with 75-inch wingspan, thick oval body and long neck

      Colors: Brown, gray, white and black

      Markings: Black head and neck with a thick white chin strap stretching from cheek to cheek, pale or white breast and sides with buff or brown wings and back, lighter on underside. Male and female birds look alike.

      Foods: Insects, seeds, aquatic plants, grass, cracked corn, berries, food scraps

      Habitat and Migration: Canada geese are the most common and widespread goose species in North America, with strong populations throughout the United States and Canada in wetlands, along waterways and in rural areas where marshes and lakes are present. These birds are year-round residents from Pennsylvania and New York to North Carolina and west to Nevada and Washington. Southern populations and extreme northern populations are migratory, traveling in a recognizable V-formation seasonally.

      Vocalizations: These geese have a loud “honk-honk” call that can seem raucous when many birds call at once. Smaller variations found in northern populations also have a distinctive cackling call. Hissing is a common threat response.

      Behavior: Canada geese are very social birds that travel in medium to large flocks and are easily adaptable to human habitation such as man-made lakes and waterways. These large birds can also be aggressive to intruders, whether birds or humans, and may hiss or charge if they feel threatened. Geese that live in close contact with humans may become docile and can beg for handouts, particularly near lakeside picnic areas, and they may be willing to take scraps from the hand.

      Reproduction: These geese mate for life in a strong, monogamous partnership. Pairs will produce one brood per year of 5-10 eggs that must be incubated for 22-30 days before hatching. Both parents will incubate the eggs and care for the young. Fledglings leave the nest in 1-2 days and are taught how to find food by both parents. After 40-55 days young birds reach their adult size, but they will remain together as a family group until the next breeding season.

      Attracting Canada Geese: Canada geese are likely to appear in any location with sufficient wetlands or waterways, and during migrating periods they are known to rest in agricultural fields or along drainage ditches. They are not common in backyards without large water features. If waterways are nearby, birders can offer cracked corn and bread scraps on the ground for visiting geese.

  • Turkey Vulture

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      Bill: Slightly hooked, white or cream color

      Size: 28-32 inches long with 70-inch wingspan, long neck

      Colors: Black, gray, white, red, pink, brown

      Markings: Male and female birds are similar with overall brown-black plumage. Some gray or white may show on the wings of perched birds but is much more prominent in the bi-colored pattern seen in flight with a dark leading edge and white or gray trailing edge and fingertips. The head is bare and red with white or greenish warts below and in front of the eye. The legs are pale red or pink.

      Foods: Carrion

      Habitat and Migration: Turkey vultures are fairly common and widespread throughout all types of habitats in the United States and the southern edge of Canada in the summer. Populations in the northern and mountain states as well as the Great Plains migrate seasonally, while turkey vultures in the Southeast and along the Pacific Coast may remain all year. These birds are year-round residents throughout the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America.

      Vocalizations: Turkey vultures are primarily silent birds, though they do have a rough hiss they may use when threatened or in distress. This hiss can also be heard from flocks around food or when roosting. Other calls, though rarely heard, include guttural growling and grunts.

      Behavior: These birds with their long, broad wings are majestic fliers and can soar for hours searching for food. Their flight pattern is easily recognized by the wings held in a slight V shape and rocking back and forth as they scan for a meal. Turkey vultures have extraordinary sight and are one of the few birds to have a highly developed sense of smell, which is useful when locating food. Flocks of turkey vultures can often be found at carcasses and they will also roost in flocks at night. When not soaring or feeding, these birds often spread their wings to sun.

      Reproduction: These are monogamous birds and a mated pair will produce one brood of 1-3 eggs annually. Both parents incubate the young birds for 38-40 days, and they will feed the young birds via regurgitation for 65-85 days until the juveniles are ready to leave the nest.

      Attracting Turkey Vultures: These are not backyard birds but may be found near human habitation anywhere dead animals can be found. Road kill is a common food source though risky, as many birds are hit by cars each year. Turkey vultures will also feed on stillborn livestock and afterbirth if it is left available.

  • Seagulls

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      Bill: Thick, yellow, black subterminal band

      Size: 18 inches long with 48-inch wingspan

      Colors: White, gray, yellow, black, red, brown

      Markings: Birds take three years to reach adult plumage; juvenile birds are mottled brown, gray and white with a pinkish bill. Adults have a white body with pale to medium gray wings and back. Legs and feet are yellow or greenish-yellow, and yellow eyes are surrounded by a thin red orbital ring that can be hard to see. Wing tips are black with white spots. Winter plumage is similar but with brown spots on the head and nape of the neck.

      Foods: Insects, fish, grain, rodents, garbage, carrion

      Habitat and Migration: Ring-billed gulls are common summer birds in the northern United States and southern central Canada, and they typically migrate to the southeastern, central and all coastal regions of the United States as well as throughout Mexico in the winter. Year-round populations can be found near the Great Lakes and in Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington. These birds are adaptable to nearly any habitat that features large bodies of water, and they are also commonly found in parking lots and urban areas where they feed on refuse.

      Vocalizations: The ring-billed gull’s shrill, raspy “oooow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow” call is its most familiar, but a laughing “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” cackle is also common. These birds can be very vocal and raucous in large flocks.

      Behavior: Ring-billed gulls are very active scavengers that frequently congregate in large flocks that may be mixed with other types of gulls. They will forage while wading, walking or swimming, and can become aggressive at picnic areas and other locations where food scraps are common.

      Reproduction: These are typically monogamous birds that tend to nest in large colonies. Both parents will incubate the nest of 2-4 eggs for 22-28 days, and will feed the fledgling birds for 35 days until they are able to forage on their own. Mated birds raise one brood per year.

      Attracting Ring-Billed Gulls: No species of gulls are common backyard birds, but birders who live near large bodies of water may attract ring-billed gulls with mealworms or kitchen scraps.

  • House Sparrows

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      Bill: Thick and conical, black in males and lighter in females

      Size: 5-6 inches long with 9-inch wingspan, stocky body

      Colors: Brown, black, white, buff, gray

      Markings: Birds are dimorphic. Males have black chin and bib with white cheeks and rust colored cap and nape of neck, pale abdomen and black and brown streaking on back and wings. Males also have a single white wing bar. Females are plainer, with a buff eyebrow, brown and buff streaked wings and back and a lighter bill.

      Foods: Seeds, grains, insects, fruit

      Habitat and Migration: House sparrows were first introduced to North America in the 1850s and have become one of the most widespread birds in southern Canada, the continental United States, Mexico and Central America. They are highly adaptable to urban, suburban and agricultural habitats but are rarely found far from human habitation. Worldwide, these birds are also common throughout Europe, Russia and the Middle East, including India, though their numbers are declining in much of the Old World. House sparrows do not generally migrate but may become nomadic when seeking food sources.

      Vocalizations: House sparrows can be very vocal in large groups but are quieter when isolated. Their calls include a fluttery “cheep” and rapid chattering sounds.

      Behavior: House sparrows congregate in large flocks to feed and roost, and bird colonies may be made up of several family flocks. They generally forage on the ground, hopping and scratching with their feet, or in trees and bushes while looking for insects. These birds may become aggressive toward other birds feeding nearby and are bold around humans. Being so used to humans has made house sparrows resourceful in finding unique food supplies. They have been seen inspecting car grills for insects, and will feed on farms searching for spilled seed and grain.

      Reproduction: House sparrows are generally monogamous and will build bulky nests in roof crevices, nesting boxes and natural tree cavities, or they may chase other birds out of nests. The female will incubate a brood of 4-6 eggs for 14-18 days, then both parents will regurgitate food for the nestlings for 14-18 days until they leave the nest. Depending on the climate, pairs may raise 2-3 broods per year.

      Attracting House Sparrows: For many backyard birders, the challenge is not attracting house sparrows, but rather keeping them away because they are so abundant and aggressive. House sparrows will easily come to either platform or hopper feeders offering mixed seed, sunflower seeds or cracked corn, and they frequently nest along the eaves of houses.

  • European Starlings

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      Bill: Long, pointed, yellow

      Size: 8.5 inches long with 15-inch wingspan, stubby tail

      Colors: Black, buff, iridescent, red

      Markings: Sexes are identical with allover black plumage highlighted with an iridescent green and purple gloss on the head, back, nape, flanks and chest. Fresh fall plumage has buff tips to feathers giving the birds a heavily spotted look. Wings and the short tail are dark and edged with buff. Legs and feet are red. Winter plumage is duller overall.

      Foods: Insects, seeds, fruit, grain

      Habitat and Migration: The European starling's native habitat includes a year-round range in Western Europe and around the Caspian Sea that expands to Scandinavia and western Russia in the summer and the Iberian Peninsula, Middle East and northern Africa in the winter. These birds have been introduced in many regions worldwide, including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In North America, European starlings are found year-round throughout the continental United States, northern Mexico and southern Canada, expanding further north during summers. Regardless of where the birds are found, they prefer open habitats such as plains, agricultural fields and open woodlands, and in urban areas they are frequently found in yards and parks.

      Vocalizations: These are gregarious birds with a wide variety of loud, demanding calls. Typical calls include whistles, chatters, rattles, chips and trills, and they can also imitate numerous other bird species and non-bird sounds. Juvenile birds are especially loud when begging in the nest or shortly after fledging.

      Behavior: European starlings are tenacious, energetic birds that can be aggressive when feeding or nesting. During the breeding season they are generally solitary or found in pairs, but in the fall and winter they will form large roosting flocks that may number up to 1 million birds. These large flocks can be primarily starlings or may be mixed with different blackbird species. While feeding, these birds forage on the open ground, prodding into short grass and soil with their bills to seek out insects and grain. They have been known to raid the caches of other birds and will readily steal from one another.

      Reproduction: These are monogamous birds that aggressively claim nesting cavities from other species, including woodpeckers, chickadees and bluebirds. A mated pair will produce 2-3 broods of 5-8 eggs each during the breeding season. Both parents incubate the eggs for 12-14 days, and both parents will feed the altricial young for an additional 19-21 days after hatching. The juvenile birds will follow their parents for another 1-2 weeks begging and demanding food

      Attracting European Starlings: These birds are easily attracted to backyard feeders with peanut butter, suet and bread scraps, and they will also visit platform and hopper feeders for seed and grain. Because these birds can bring large flocks with voracious appetites to a backyard, many birders prefer to discourage their visits. Using birdfeeders with cages to exclude larger birds and cleaning up seed spilled on the ground can minimize European starling intrusions.

  • Pigeons

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      Bill: Short and slightly curved with a white crop at the base

      Size: Short and slightly curved with a white crop at the base

      Colors: Blue gray, black, white, brown, iridescent

      Markings: Pigeons have a wide range of color and marking variations due to escaped domestic birds and fancy stock breeding. Typical pigeons are a blue gray overall with an iridescent neck that reflects blue, green and purple. Birds may have thick black wing bars and most pigeons are light underneath the wings. Eyes and legs are orange or reddish. Additional color variations include white, brown, tan or mottled birds.

      Foods: Grass, seeds, grains, berries, scraps, trash

      Habitat and Migration: Rock pigeons are common throughout the continental United States, southern Canada, Mexico and urban areas throughout the world. These birds thrive in human habitats and are most populous in large cities but can also be found in suburban and rural locations. Pigeons do not migrate.

      Vocalizations: Rock pigeons can seem very vocal in large flocks. The typical call is a rapidly undulating “croooo-croooo” sound.

      Behavior: Because pigeons are so used to humans, they often seem semi-tame and will readily approach passersby for food. Large flocks of pigeons are constantly foraging or birds will roost in close contact with one another. Pigeons are very agile fliers that can reach speeds up to 85 miles per hour with their tapered, falcon-like wings.

      Reproduction: Rock pigeons can brood at any time of year and both the male and female parents will tend the eggs during the 17-19 day incubation period. The fledgling phase lasts 25-35 days and for the first few days both parents will feed the young birds with regurgitated crop milk. One brood consists of 1-2 eggs, and pigeons can raise five or more broods per year.

      Attracting Pigeons: Rock pigeons are ground feeding birds that will be attracted to kitchen and bread scraps as well as cracked corn or seeds spilled on the ground. Because the birds are voracious and often travel in very large flocks, many backyard birders prefer to deter pigeons from visiting with specialized spikes on roosting areas and by choosing feeders that minimize spilled seed.