Capturing Behavior: Birds Are What They Eat

The old saying “you are what you eat” clearly applies to birds, although more directly it could be “you are how you eat.” The bodies and behavior of birds is often tightly linked to what they eat and how they get it. Feeding is one of the most fundamental behaviors—birds do it every day—but also one of the most distinctive since different kinds of birds feed in different ways.

What are the keys to photographing feeding? All the regular guidelines of bird photography are applicable, as are general birdwatching practices like being patient and knowing the habits of the bird you are photographing. When capturing feeding, there may be key moments that are particularly engaging or distinctive that may make the best photo. Also, although the eye is typically the focal point of a bird photo (or any portrait), the beak may be the focal point when a bird is eating.

Below are some examples with notes:

A Bananaquit feeding from banana flowers showcases the posture of the bird rather than its facial expression.
A Bananaquit feeding from banana flowers showcases the posture of the bird rather than its facial expression.
The moment a heron swallows a crab always has an awkward feel to it. A fast shutter speed is key, as this is a fast motion. The heron will also close its nictitating membrane over its eye at this moment.
The moment a heron swallows a crab always has an awkward feel to it. A fast shutter speed is key, as this is a fast motion. The heron will also close its nictitating membrane over its eye at this moment.
A Spotted Sandpiper has pulled most of the legs off of this fiddler crab. Food preparation, in birds that do it at all, can be fascinating.
A Spotted Sandpiper has pulled most of the legs off of this fiddler crab. Food preparation, in birds that do it at all, can be fascinating.
An American Kestrel eats an Anguilla Bank Ameiva. During a meal like this you will almost surely have time to take multiple shots, so take advantage of that opportunity.
An American Kestrel eats an Anguilla Bank Ameiva. During a meal like this you will almost surely have time to take multiple shots, so take advantage of that opportunity.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher show that their bills are made for probing. In some photos you want to show the bill, in others it is good to show how it is used.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher show that their bills are made for probing. In some photos you want to show the bill, in others it is good to show how it is used.
A Gray Kingbird flips a cerambycid beetle into the air like a pancake before swallowing it.
A Gray Kingbird flips a cerambycid beetle into the air like a pancake before swallowing it.
A Black-necked stilt goes head first for food. It makes for a fun photo even though the birds entire head is hidden.
A Black-necked stilt goes head first for food. It makes for a fun photo even though the birds entire head is hidden.
The Great Egret uses its bill to spear fish. In this photo, the method of capture is clear.
The Great Egret uses its bill to spear fish. In this photo, the method of capture is clear.
A young Common Gallinule eats a dead tilapia. This invasive fish, which is vulnerable to high salinity levels in the Great Salt Pond, becomes a meal for this primarily vegetarian bird.
A young Common Gallinule eats a dead tilapia. This invasive fish, which is vulnerable to high salinity levels in the Great Salt Pond, becomes a meal for this primarily vegetarian bird.
The Gray Kingbird tenderizes a katydid before eating it. This is another behavior that requires a fast shutter speed to capture.
The Gray Kingbird tenderizes a katydid before eating it. This is another behavior that requires a fast shutter speed to capture.

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