Wild Bird Habitats

Desert Habitat

Ken Lund / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

Habitats are vital in nature. Learn the definition of a habitat as it relates to wild birds, including what birds need in a habitat and how habitat loss affects them.

What Is a Bird Habitat?

(noun) A habitat is a natural environment in which a wild bird lives, including all associated plant life, landforms, water sources, climate, weather patterns, and other wildlife. A healthy, diverse habitat is essential for birds to thrive.


(rhymes with acrobat, copycat, and diplomat)

About Habitats

A habitat includes all four necessities for a bird's survival: food, water, shelter, and nesting areas. These features can vary greatly between different types of habitats, however, which impacts which birds find which habitats useful.

  • Food: grains, seeds, fruits, nuts, nectar-producing flowers, and prey such as insects, fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other birds
  • Water: any source available for drinking or bathing, including rivers, swamps, lakes, streams, bays, estuaries, marshes, and oceans
  • Shelter: coniferous or deciduous trees, shrubbery, caves or rock niches, overhanging banks, brush piles, or snags
  • Nesting sites: hollow trees or snags, vegetation to support nests, burrows, nesting boxes, birdhouses, and suitable nesting material

In addition to having the appropriate features to support bird survival, a habitat also includes all the associated landforms (e.g., mountain ranges, coasts, plateaus, passes, and valleys), seasonal climate patterns, predators, and other wildlife.

Non-migratory birds occupy the same habitat year-round but may adjust their behavior to suit different seasons, such as changing their diet to the most abundant food sources throughout the year. Migratory birds change habitats seasonally, perhaps switching between two quite different types of habitats that may be hundreds or thousands of miles apart, or else seeking out similar habitats that meet their needs in different locations at different times of the year.

Types of Habitats

There are many different types of habitats across the globe, each of which can support different types of birds and other wildlife. The most familiar and widespread habitats include:

  • Forests: includes boreal regions, temperate woodlands, and tropical jungles
  • Grasslands: includes meadows, prairies, plains, and scrub regions
  • Deserts: with varying degrees of aridity and drought-tolerant vegetation
  • Wetlands: includes marshes, bogs, and swamps
  • Tundra: circumpolar regions with light and temperature extremes
  • Oceans: pelagic zones that include offshore islands and aquatic regions
  • Urban and suburban: regions associated with humans, including major cities

Habitats may be clearly defined or may have transitional zones where different types of habitats merge, such as woodland edges that are a transition between forests and grasslands. The type of habitat with the most diverse avifauna is the tropical forest, but multiple bird species and good birding can be found in every habitat.

The amount of habitat a bird requires for survival and growth depends on the species. Many species, while an individual bird may have a relatively small range, require large habitats for a healthy population to minimize competition for food sources and nesting grounds. At the same time, many species may occupy the same range because their food, shelter, and nesting needs do not overlap, and they do not compete individually. Instead, they share resources and use specific environmental niches that make the habitat more diverse.

Birders can make use of habitats as a clue to bird identification, particularly for birds with specific needs or habitat requirements. Habitat alone is not usually enough for identification but can be a critical part of determining which bird is which in any given area.

How Habitat Loss Affects Birds

Many birds are threatened by habitat destruction and fragmentation that eliminates the necessary undisturbed environments. Developmental activities that most impact habitats include:

  • Agricultural use, including clearing habitats for fields or grazing livestock
  • Logging and forest harvesting that removes mature vegetation
  • Expansion of urban areas for housing, industry, or similar developments
  • Implementing dams, canals, locks, or other structures that alter waterways
  • Infrastructure development that fractures habitats, such as roads, electrical lines, wind turbines, or similar structures

Habitats are also gravely damaged by polluting activities, such as oil spills or pesticide and herbicide runoff. Natural disasters can damage habitats as well, such as a fire destroying mature forests, flooding changing the water composition of coastal swamps, or a landslide changing the structure of a hill or valley.

Birds can adapt to habitat changes over time and may shift their ranges to more suitable locations. In some cases, habitat changes can even be beneficial, encouraging the growth of younger plants that may support different bird species. Rapid changes, such as caused by human actions, can have drastic consequences, however, and bird populations may plummet if their habitat is no longer suitable or there are no other locations to which they can relocate.

Also Known As

Biome, Ecological Zone, Range, Territory