Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

Avian Behavior

Filed under: Birds — Lowell Christie -- April 9, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

W-GrebesWhat is bird-watching? If we limit our definition to the identification of new birds in order to lengthen one’s “life list,” birders who cannot afford to travel ’round the world chasing different species would soon check themselves right out of the sport. After you reach the point where nothing but rarities interests you, what’s left?

Fortunately, only a few birders take that narrow an attitude; most of us find watching a bird’s behavior every bit as entertaining as identifying its family lineage. Waves of warblers and kettles of raptors appear only several times each year, but the patterns of courtship and territorial and feeding behaviors are constantly occurring around us.

In this season especially, avian choirs can be seen and heard caroling from fence posts, treetops, and roof crests. In our area spring is officially announced when lovesick male flickers hammer themselves into a frenzy atop the coach’s TV antenna (typically before we’ve had time to decide whether we’re ready to greet the day). And when females are around, the males’ antics become really crazy. Birds, like boys, will do nearly anything to attract the attention of the opposite sex.

Whoopers begin courting and pairing off even before leaving their winter quarters in Aransas, Texas, to head for their northern breeding grounds. They lurch clumsily about, flapping their wings and trumpeting in tones loud enough to put a caterwauling cat to shame – or at least so we’re told. We probably hold the record for the number of times we’ve looked for whoopers in several states, enduring wind and cold and rain, but still not spotting any of the big birds within binocular distance. We have, however, witnessed dramatic courtship rituals performed by members of other avian species.

Western grebe couples perform a memorable water ballet. In perfect unison, the pair arch their necks and paddle their feet so fast that their graceful bodies lift clear of the water. They skim over the surface, almost literally walking on water. Once you’ve seen that duet, or have heard their haunting call, you won’t forget it.

Or how about this attention-getter. One day Kaye was walking in the Arizona desert when a bronzed cowbird levitated before her eyes. Obviously, all that effort wasn’t expended for her entertainment; a female cowbird stood nearby, seemingly bored with the entire performance. The frustrated male tried again. Standing but a couple feet from the light of his life, he fluttered his wings and rose straight up just like a helicopter, hovered for about a minute at an altitude of 20 feet, and then settled at her feet once more. Yawn. One more try; the response was the same. Oh well, there must be females somewhere that would be more receptive to his charms.

Not all bird behavior pertains to mating; birds become equally worked up when defending their territory against real or imagined invaders. If you or your pet has ever been attacked by an irate mockingbird, then you know that an aroused bird has no respect for size. When any living creature invades the comfort zone of a mocker, the intruder had better look out; the bird will fly out and drive the interloper off. More than one hapless human has gone away with a bloodied scalp because he had the misfortune of walking too close to a nesting mockingbird.

Birds pick on each other as well. On more than one occasion we’ve watched a mob of blackbirds harass a turkey vulture right out of the neighborhood. In spite of the considerable size difference, a group of blackbirds will commonly take on several crows; single kestrels mix it up with red-tailed hawks; and just about everybody gangs up on any great horned owl that is unfortunate enough to be discovered dozing in a tree. The poor owl is just trying to get a little shut-eye, but the smaller birds keep pestering it until finally the owl gives in and looks for more peaceful surroundings.

Another interesting time to study avian behavior is at feeding time. Whether they’re gathering from Nature’s larder or feasting on seed that you’ve scattered outside your motor coach window, hungry birds do some pretty amazing things.

Spend some time watching the behavior of woodpeckers, especially when they have access to kibble from your dog’s dish. Woodpeckers are natural hoarders, and if necessary they’ll spend all day gathering up food and storing it in every nook and cranny. Sometimes they even go back to reclaim the food, but equally often it provides another animal’s dinner.

Acorn woodpeckers, common in parts of the West, peck holes in dead trees, which they then fill with acorns. By the time they finish, the dead branch of a sycamore tree will resemble a sponge or coral, so riddled will it be with acorn-sized holes. These are cooperative larders; several woodpeckers fill them, and several woodpeckers will empty them later.

Birds that frequent feeders prove that even though they have limited brain capacity, they can learn new behaviors. A case in point. One year we watched a Stellar’s jay learn to feed from our bird feeder. It was too large to cling to the feeder as do the smaller birds who collect a single seed at a time. But soon that jay discovered (undoubtedly by accident) that if it smacked into the feeder by banging against it with its wing, some seed would fall to the ground. Once it recognized cause and effect, that jay kept busy bashing into the feeder all day long.

In a related situation, a female Gila woodpecker learned to use her belly as a table. Of all the Gilas that frequented a bread basket, she alone learned to cling to the bottom of the container and peck morsels of dry bread off so that they would fall on her belly. Then she would daintily gather up the crumbs from her feathered table. No other woodpeckers profited from her example; they followed the old pattern of breaking off chunks, letting most of them drop, and then picking them up off of the ground.

Perhaps these few examples of avian fun and games will whet your appetite for bird-watching of the behavioral kind. While it is a mistake to endow birds with human capacities or actions, it’s fascinating to watch them and to try to determine how each activity and behavior contributes to the success of their lives.


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