Our Favorite Fascinating Bird Behaviors From the 2023 Audubon Photo Awards

From an extra hungry Great Blue Heron to a very determined Verdin, this year's selections once again provide a vivid glimpse into the lives of birds.
Two water birds rise up out of the water close together, a long reed held in one of the bird's beak wraps around their long necks as they twirl.
Clark’s Grebes. Photo: Binh Nguyen/Audubon Photography Awards

Bird photography can serve many purposes. The perfect portrait might make us appreciate the sheer splendor of avian beauty. A compelling perspective, meanwhile, can shine a light on conservation threats a certain species faces. The images of bird behaviors featured in this gallery serve their own entertaining yet vital purpose: They give us a glimpse into the everyday lives of birds.

Taking a good behavior shot is no easy task.  A photographer must have quick reflexes, a thorough working knowledge of their equipment, an understanding of bird behavior, and, well, a bit of luck. Fortunately for us, the photos below were taken by photographers who brought all these elements together, capturing memorable submissions to our 2023 Audubon Photography Awards. So enjoy the moments below while learning more about the behaviors of each of species. Once you’re done, be sure to check out the winners of last year’s awards and our favorite Top 100 images

With This Weed I Thee Wed (above) 

Clark’s Grebe, like the related Western Grebe, is a striking waterbird. It becomes even more conspicuous in breeding season, when pairs draw attention with their elaborate courtship behavior on marshy lakes all over western North American. Most famous is the “rushing” display, when two birds go pattering noisily across the surface, side by side. But the “weed dance” seems more romantic. In this, both members of a pair dive underwater and come up with bits of weeds in their bills. Swimming to each other, they rear up vertically above the surface, stretching their necks upward and “dancing” in place. One member of this pair of Clark’s Grebes had grabbed a reed that was still attached, so that the birds were being bound closer together as they twirled.         

Turning the Tables

Photo: Robert Gloeckner/Audubon Photography Awards

Wading birds and alligators are close neighbors in many southeastern swamps, interacting in multiple ways. Adult alligators are apex predators, of course, and will eat practically anything they can catch, including birds. They may lurk under nesting colonies of herons or egrets, eating baby birds that fall from their nests—which would be doomed anyway, since the parent waders generally ignore fallen nestlings. The presence of the ‘gators may provide a kind of protection by keeping away other predators that might climb to the nests. The predation isn’t all one-sided: the Great Blue Heron is an apex hunter as well, readily eating baby alligators as large as the one in the photo.

Gathering Moss

Photo: Kazuto Shibata/Audubon Photography Awards

In the wren family, males and females look the same, but behavior can set them apart. For example, male wrens tend to be more industrious (but less refined) nest-builders than females. A common pattern is that the male builds several almost-complete nests, scattered through his territory; then the female chooses one and adds soft nest-lining material before laying her eggs. We might guess that the Pacific Wren in this image is a female, gathering the last soft bits of moss to complete the abode started by her mate. But in the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest where this species thrives, moss is such an abundant material that males may add it to the nest’s basic structure.  

No Laughing Matter 

Photo: Jean Hall/Audubon Photography Awards

With orange bills and shaggy crests, Royal Terns are conspicuous along southern coastlines, nesting in large, dense colonies on the sand. The photographer of this image had accompanied biologists to one such colony in North Carolina, and was observing from a respectful distance. The terns were unperturbed—until an adult Laughing Gull swooped in, attempting to grab an unprotected egg or chick. Gulls can be major predators at tern colonies, and these terns instantly closed ranks, jabbing with their bills to keep this one away. A few Sandwich Terns are visible here, slightly smaller with black, yellow-tipped bills. They often nest close to Royal Terns, perhaps gaining protection by proximity to their larger relatives.

Cactus Cuddles 

Photo: Corey Raffel/Audubon Photography Awards

A small, short-tailed species of parrot, the Rosy-faced Lovebird is flexible in its choice of nesting sites in its native range in southwestern Africa. Typically it nests in crevices in rocky cliffs, but it will also use enclosed spaces in bridges, buildings, and other structures, and even abandoned nests of other birds such as weavers. Escaped Rosy-faced Lovebirds have established a population around Phoenix, Arizona, where they have adapted to a new kind of site: cavities in giant saguaro cactus excavated by Gila Woodpeckers. Despite their cuddly appearance, the two in this photo are not “lovebirds” in the figurative sense. Their dark bills indicate that these are young birds, waiting for their parents to come and feed them.

Flexible Forager

Photo: Corey Raffel/Audubon Photography Awards

We may think of hawks and other raptors swooping from the sky to catch prey, but the African Harrier-Hawk has a different lifestyle. Its long legs have remarkably flexible joints, and its bill is thin, so it is well adapted for clambering about and reaching deep into narrow spaces with its feet or bill. Its menu may include lizards or bats from crevices in rock walls, insects and their larvae from tree cavities, or baby birds pulled from nests—as this harrier-hawk is attempting to do at a weaver nest in Kenya. This behavior might seem unique for a raptor, but the Crane Hawk of the American tropics has a very similar anatomical structure and hunting technique.

Penguin Parade

Photo: Karen Blackwood/Audubon Photography Awards

Penguins are adapted for life in the water, where they are as speedy as sharks, as graceful as dolphins. On land, though, they’re out of their main element, and we often see them as a bit clumsy or even comical. The Gentoo Penguin breeds on rocky coastlines in many southern island groups, extending south to the Antarctic Peninsula, and in its southernmost colonies it often has to wait for snow to melt before it can build its pebbly nest and lay eggs. For traversing the drifts around the colony, the penguins tamp down regular pathways of hard-packed snow. However, even in the absence of snow, these penguins often waddle along in single file for no obvious reason.

Love Is Blue

Photo: Kathy Raffel/Audubon Photography Awards

The bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea take courtship to a remarkable extreme. Males of most species gather plant material to build varied structures called bowers, then decorate them with eye-catching objects and wait for females to visit. For the male Satin Bowerbird of eastern Australia, the bower consists of two parallel rows of sticks jammed vertically into a foundation of sticks and straw, and the decorative theme is a collection of anything bright blue. Historically, the blue objects would have been mostly feathers or flowers. Today, male Satin Bowerbirds living anywhere close to humans can have their pick of blue plastic items, which apparently work just as well in attracting females.

Thorny Lodgings 

Photo: Carl Ebeling/Audubon Photography Awards

A tiny bird of desert country in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, the Verdin lives in a thorny world. Surrounded by cactus and spiny shrubs, it regularly incorporates spiky elements into its building projects. Here, an adult carries a long, thorny twig that it will maneuver into the outer wall of its bulky, globular nest. The inner nest layers will feature much softer materials. Verdins build nests not only for raising young, but also to sleep in at night, and an individual may build several per year. These structures may last a long time in the dry air, so that Verdin nests can seem to be everywhere in the desert, more numerous than the birds themselves.

Digging the Duckweed

Photo: Eric Schertler/Audubon Photography Awards

Ducks find food in the water in a variety of ways, some picking items from the surface, others swimming underwater to pursue small creatures. The Northern Shoveler—named for the shape of its long, broad-tipped bill—swims about with its bill below the surface, straining the water like soup. The edges of the inside of its bill are lined with comb-like structures, allowing it to sweep through the water and strain out large numbers of tiny crustaceans, aquatic plants, seeds, and other morsels. This adult male shoveler, still wearing its mottled eclipse plumage, was surrounded by a bountiful feast of duckweed as it foraged in New York’s Central Park.