Our Favorite Fascinating Bird Behaviors From the 2020 Audubon Photo Awards

Every year the contest attracts entries capturing rare and unusual moments in the avian world. Here are this year's highlights.

One of the big challenges of bird photography is the fact that the subjects generally don’t sit still and pose for their portraits. Instead, they always seem to be moving around, doing things. The savvy photographer becomes a student of avian behavior, watching their actions and learning their rhythms to try to predict what they will do next. Such careful study, combined with persistence and skill, may produce images that go beyond mere portraits—images that provide unique insights into the lives of birds. Every year, reviewing the entries in the Audubon Photography Awards, we look forward to discovering these memorable images of bird behavior. So check out this year's selection of special moments, and once you're done, head on over to the 2020 awards winners and our gallery of Top 100 photos for more incredible images. 

Life Lessons (above)

Pairs of adult Crested Caracaras often stay together year-round, and young birds may remain in their natal territory for months after they can fly, following their parents and learning from them. In this family portrait, two young caracaras with their immature plumage look on while an adult dust-bathes on a white shell road in Florida. Many birds engage in dust-bathing, vigorously fluffing their plumage as they wriggle about in fine dry soil, then preening their feathers aferward. This behavior might dislodge small parasites and help to keep feathers from becoming matted with body oils or grease.


Precarious Childcare 

In the American tropics, an adult Common Potoo will sleep all day as it perches upright atop a vertical, broken-off branch, camouflaged by its barklike plumage. At night, though, the bird is wide awake, sallying out from its perch to capture large flying insects in its huge, gaping mouth. Rather than build a nest, the female simply lays an egg on top of a stub, and both members of a pair take turns incubating it. Here, an adult potoo, brooding its fluffy, half-grown young, yawns during a midday nap.  



Bald Eagles and red foxes are both adaptable creatures, able to hunt as predators and feed as scavengers. Photographer Shannon Phifer captured an interaction with elements of both as she watched a meadow where a mother fox had brought back a rabbit for her offspring. As the fox kits ripped up the rabbit carcass, this young eagle would hop in, grab a scrap, and then fly off a short distance with it. This was repeated several times, with the young foxes and young eagle facing off over the spoils. Eventually mother fox returned and chased the eagle away.


Scavenger Hunt 

Distantly related to plovers, but looking more like a pigeon or a chicken, the Snowy Sheathbill seems ill-equipped for survival in the harsh surroundings of the Antarctic. It thrives there as the ultimate scavenger, scrounging anything remotely edible, including the droppings of other creatures. When Gentoo Penguins are feeding their young—regurgitating a bellyful of the abundant crustaceans called krill—the sheathbills swoop in to steal some of the food as it's being transferred. This pilfered krill may be their primary food source for a few weeks.


Baby Steps 

Adolescence is a rough time for owls. Young Barred Owls develop slowly, and they’re not capable of flying until at least 10 weeks after they hatch. But before that, when they are only four or five weeks old, they usually begin to climb out of the nest and perch in nearby branches. Often they fall to the ground and have to clamber and flutter up along a leaning tree trunk or snag to reach a safe height, as the one in this photo has done. The adult Barred Owls keep track of the locations of their offspring and continue to bring them food until they’re at least four months old and flying well.


Quick Learners 

Although barnyard turkeys are earthbound, their wild counterparts are strong fliers. Most fly up into tall trees to roost overnight. The exception: adult females in the breeding season, which must incubate their eggs and brood their newly hatched young on the ground. However, the wings of young Wild Turkeys develop rapidly, and within about two weeks they can fly well enough to follow their mother up into the trees, to spend the night safe from most predators. This female is demonstrating her usual brooding posture, sheltering the chicks under her wings.


Straight Shot  

Only a few kinds of songbirds are consistent cavity nesters. Eastern Bluebirds are among that select group, constructing a loose cup of grass inside a natural tree hollow, woodpecker hole, or nest box. Nest sites inside cavities have the advantage of being sheltered from weather, but they may be vulnerable to some predators because the adult bluebirds are so conspicuous when they’re coming and going. An adult bluebird arriving at the nest may pause outside and look around for danger before entering. When leaving, the adult often comes shooting straight out of the hole, wings folded tight against its sides, before spreading its wings and flying away.


Food Fight 

Tens of thousands of pairs of Common Murres nest on the cliffs of the Farne Islands, off the coast of England. It’s a fine place for these seabirds to raise their chicks, but not without its dangers, including the risk of predation by large gulls. Here an adult Herring Gull has snatched a murre chick from its nest and carried it away. The hapless chick will wind up being fed to the Herring Gull’s young, provided the adult Black-headed Gull hovering nearby doesn’t succeed in stealing the meal. It’s a harsh reality, but such predation is a normal part of life around big seabird colonies.


Bring it On  

Although red foxes have been known to kill young Sandhill Cranes, a fox would have to be desperate to tackle a full-grown adult. Photographer Eric Christensen watched this fox and crane facing off for a full 10 minutes before they went their separate ways. The fox probably wasn’t seriously considering an attack on the big bird, and the crane probably wasn’t frightened—after all, it could have simply flown away. Why such a bellicose standoff between unrelated animals that don't pose an immediate threat to one another? It could be because evolution often favors the more dominant or aggressive individuals, and these instincts can play out in some impractical ways.