Since there is so little written about good birdman strategy (the dred lord battle manual has all of about 12 lines), I though I'd share a couple of things that I've learned in a recent game I've played. Take what you like and ignore the rest.
The key to playing the birdmen well is milking your cloaking advantage for everything its worth. Your first two ships should Swifthearts with transwarp drives and x-rays (disruptors if you've got the $$$). Load them with colonists and send them off on their way. These ships should never attack anything but cargos, and then only when you're 101% assured of safety. Keep them cloaked at all times - sending them from planet to planet, dropping colonists on worlds with good native races/populations. Also, don't plan on these things returning home - Swifties can go forever on a single tank of fuel, and by refuel at unowned worlds they can travel all the way across the galaxy. This allows you to build a database of info on the good planets they've visited - which you can ultimately sell to your allies (people will pay handsomely for that bovinoid monarchy w/ 8,000,000 inhabitants!).
After the scouts you should build 3-5 Fearless Wings. These will be the backbone of your early expansion. With 240 cargo space and a fuel tank of 360, the Fearless Wing is a fantastic cloaked freighter. Put Mark IV torps on them and some disruptors (that way they can double as pirates, allowing you to capture enemy colonists for your own colonization efforts). Head straight for worlds with good native populations (discovered by your Swifties) - pay close attention to the government type, as it has a profound impact upon the $$$ produced. The worlds you want, in order of preference, are: Bovinoid, Insectiod, Avian, etc. Later, when you're in the business of building a bunch of starbases, go for the other interesting native worlds. Unless you really need the minerals, ignore no-native worlds that lie outside of your travel routes. (The ones along your flight paths are good for refueling and should ultimately be colonized.)
The most important thing for the birds is not letting anyone know where your homeworlds are. Get your defeneces up to 101 as soon as you can (so they can't see you via sensor sweep), and keep those damn freightors cloaked. You'll be very tempted to build Large Freighters to move your people quicker - AVOID THIS TEMPTATION. Ultimately, try to beg, borrow or steal a GRAV ACCELERATED ship from the privateers (an MBR). With this you can tow your large freighters from one world to the next, denying the enemy the ability to locate your shipping routes - and hence your planets. A good trade with the privateers is for you to offer to clone some of the ships he captures for him (he can't do this himself, and this allows you the chance to make your own copies if you like). Ideally he should pay for the cloning and offer an MBR or two for your trouble.
As far as early defence goes, you are well equiped to deal with most medium tech ships (watch out for the fascist Ill Wind, though - at 275 KT w/ 10 beams and two torps it is a bloody killer). Ignore the White Falcon, as it is a hybrid which does nothing well. A good early battle group is an equal mix Bright Hearts and Fearless Wings. The Bright Hearts are cannon fodder (mass of only 80 KT), but with 4 tubes they pack quite a punch. Early in the game I put Mark IV torps and x-rays on them (sometimes I leave off the beams altogether), and load them up with 10-12 torps. They won't survive against any halfway decent torp ship, but they do a great job of softening them up. Against carriers I alternate my order of attack: Bright Heart, Fearless Wing, Bright Heart, Fearless...The Bright Hearts do the damage, while the Fearless Wings take care of fighters. Also, a single Bright Heart with at least Mark IV torps can often up a medium sized ship to the point where a moderately-defended planet can survive an attack (the torps do some damge, but more importantly there beams won't charged and one of your first two waves of fighters will get through...if its a torp ship) Finally, don't waste money on fancy engines for your home-defence Bright Hearts, as they'll never go anywhere alone...Tow them.
As a birdman, though, you should engage enemy vessels (other than cargos) only when *absolutely* necessary. Almost everyone else (with the exception of the fascists) has stronger, heavier ships than you do. Your warships are for attacking planets and generally harassing the enemy's shipping. You should be the guerilla warfare master of the game. Lay small unexpected minefields throughout the enemy's territory (Fearless Wings are excellent for this - a FW with tech 10 torps can carry enough mines for one HELL of a huge minefield). Use superspy to gather info on your enemy and plan your attacks accordingly. Pay attention to fuel levels at his starbases. If his fuel is low (you can tell this if he has a bunch of ships sitting in orbit that obviously aren't for defence), try towing newly produced ships from orbiit. Chances are he doesn't have "BIRDMEN" set as primary enemy, so he won't attack you when you stop. If your guess about his fuel status is correct, then cograts, you're now the proud owner of a brand-spanking new enemy ship. Remember, your strength is stealth, not brute force.
As the game progresses:
Since your ships are less powerful, you're going to need more of them to prevail in a stand-up fight. That means that you want to avoid this kind of thing if possible. If not, you want it to occur later in the game so you'll have had time to build a fleet of 30 Darkwings (or something crazy like that). Fortunately, for you, the birdies often share a ground combat advantage with the fascists (usually, birdmen get a 5X advantage). This means that a Fearless Wing loaded with colonists effectively carries the equivilent of 1200 troops. Beaming these guys down from orbit while cloaked can be a real headache for your opponents. Three fully loaded Fearless Wings (3600 troops) can take almost any planet (besides a homeworld) without losing a single ship. This should be your primary way to take starbases (you get to keep them!!!). Just don't make an enemy of the lizards.
Ultimately, your battle groups should consist mainly of Darkwings and Resolutes, with Fearless Wings as troop transports and resupply ships (Resolutes are good in the resupply role also). With 10 Beams and 8 torps and a reasonable mass, the Darkwing is a great ship. It's Achilles heal is its piddly 290 KT fuel tank. The Resolute with 480 KT fuel makes a nice escort. When you start building Darkwings & Resolutes (and possibly before, if you can afford it), you'll need to upgrade to Mark VII or Mark VIII torps. This firepower will help to offset your lower ship mass in the short run (actually, for this reason, I make the switch to mark VII's as soon as I can afford to and ultimately switch to Mark VIII's, money permitting)... Ultimately, though, everyone will have this kind of firepower. Which brings me to the next topic. Allies.
As a "weaker" race, you're going to need help from the big boys in order to take out the really powerful foes out there. Your best alliance is with one of the free fighter races. Gemini's producing free fighters for you starbases and defending Valiant Winds (which you use *only* for starbase defence, and *only* if you have a source of free fighters - otherwise ignore them) can do a lot for security on the home front. On the offensive, your cloaking ships can do the scouting, provide recon, lay irritating minefields, take planets via ground assault, and harrass their shipping, while the Virgos and the Rushes do the real fighting. Remember, as a general rule, you'll need 3 Darkwings plus escorts to do the job a single big carrier can accomplish.
Short list stuff to remember when playing birds:
(1) *Always* cloak.
(2) Don't bother with no-native worlds (unless you're
stealing them from the enemy).
(3) Use ground assault instead of ship-to-ship comabt.
(4) Don't use large freighters in the open until *after* the enemy already knows the locations of your worlds.
(5) Ground assault combined with minefields can make your advance through his outer worlds practically unstoppable.
(6) Despite all the attention that Deth Specs get, the Fearless Wing is your single best weapon. It functions as cloaked minelayer, cargo/troop transport, pirate, and theif.
(7) Learn how to use superspy effectively. An empty Fearless Wing can steal 240 KT of molybdenum. This can be quite frustrating for your opponents.
(8) If you don't know more about your neighbors than they know about you, you're doing something very wrong. In most cases, you should know the locations of their starbases and good planets before they even know you're there. Only the Empire has more info gathering ability than you.
(9) Choose your alliances carefully. (It is a good idea for the birdies to eliminate their weaker neighbor quite early in the game. Again, use ground assault for this.) (10) Read and reread Sun Tzu's classic text The Art of War. Everything you need to be victorious is here. Ho Chi Mihn used it during the Vietnam war...
Your ships and what they're usefull for:
Swift Heart: best scout in the game
White Falcon: don't build 'em
Bright Heart: early defence; great cannon-fodder against bigger ships
Fearless Wing: cloaked freighter/minelayer/troop transport; also makes a good minesweeper or marauder (6 beams)
Skyfire: don't build 'em
Valiant Wind: good for home defence; especially if you have access to free fighters
Deth Specula: reasonable escort and marauder; its small cargo space makes it pathetic for most other birdy activities though; not massive enough for a reliable warship
Resolute: good minesweeper & anti-fighter ship; still, its too light to take on a respectable carrier; I build two versions, one with tech 10 beams for minesweeping, and one with x-rays and mark VIII's to soften up a carrier for my darkwings; its most important role is as a resupply ship, though
Redwind: never had the occasion to build one; probably a waste of time unless you have access to free fighters
Darkwing: cloaking battleship; need i say more? Darkwings are no match for the other big ships, though,so use them wisely and in groups; the real advantage here is obvious - you can wait in orbit until he has no defend- ing ships and them open fire; good stuff ;)
Finally, a few warnings. Host configuration settings can have a profound impact on your success. You don't want to play the birds in games where:
*The cloak failure rate is greater than 5%
*The meteor impact rate is too high (kills too many of
the natives + 500 ship limit is reached too quickly)
*The birdmen don't have a ground combat advantage
Any of these can really take the wind out of your sails. Actually, the second one is a pain in the butt no matter what race you play (except perhaps the Feds).
Finally some words about the often mis-understood uses of the Birdmen Superspy.
What you can use it for:
(2) Stealing Stuff (supplies, fuel, moly, dur, trit)
(3) Stealing $$$
Recon is the best use for superspy. It provides you with detailed info on number of colonists, factories, defences, mines, minerals, starbases, etc. Every planet should be superspyed before you take it so you know *exactly* what to expect. *Warning*, there is a 20% chance that a superspying ship will be detected and hit with an ion pulse which uncloaks _all_ cloaked ships in orbit. You are then at the mercy of his defences. DO NOT KEEP SHIPS IN ORBIT ON CONTINUAL SUPERSPY!
Stealing stuff is quite simple, so long as your opponent is sloppy about changing his friendly codes. Here's the deal:
(2) Change your FC to match his
(3) Set your waypoint to a few LY's away and your mission to gather whatever you like.
What happens: since gathering takes place before movement, which takes place before combat, you end up a few light years away, uncloaked, with a hold full of goodies. *Warning* don't do this repeatedly at the same planet with the same ship. A savy opponent will have a capital ship set to intercept your theif waiting in orbit around his world. After you move away he'll come right after you and pummel you. (You're no longer cloaked, remember...thats the reason for leaving orbit in the first place.)
Stealing $$$. This is dangerous, and seldom worth a concerted effort. As a matter of course, all ships which I set to superspy with have their FC's set to "bum" which is the planetary FC which causes planets to beam all their MC's up to ships in orbit. Since you have a 20% chance of changing the planetary FC to match yours everytime you superspy - 20% of the time you superspy a planet you'll end up with a ship full of cash. Don't be greedy and leave a ship in orbit superspying with "bum" set. You're still just as vulnerable to ion pulses...
Hope all of this helps. The birds are a subtle race, and can be quite powerful if played correctly. Someone once suggested the birds as a good race for beginners. Its certainly true that you learn a great deal getting pasted the first time you play the birds, however, I'd recommend the rebels or the colonies as a first shot. That way you can have a look at everyone elses tactics while relying on your awesome carriers to see you through to the end of the game...However, I must admit that nothing in the world compares to the feeling you get when you decloak a fleet of darkwings over and enemy planet. Or perhaps beam a shipload of birdman commandos down on unsuspecting colonists.
Cheers, and good luck.
See you 'round the echo cluster.