Bird Brained - A term of ridicule or respect?

Various posts and replies under the category Bird Study - studying and understanding birds suggest that some of our members are interested in the behaviour of birds. They probably don’t realise it but they are participating in the science of Ethology. The comments made and questions raised show how observation of birds in our local surroundings can help us to understand various aspects of bird behaviour.

Here are a few examples – but there must be many others – can you beat these?

Blue Tits take the cream.

Most people will be aware of the way in which Blue Tits learned that, by pecking a hole in the foil milk bottle tops, they could gain a reward: they got the cream. Because Blue Tits are communal the habit spread rapidly. It used to be claimed that this learning was passed down to off-spring in the birds genes. In fact imitation of observed behaviour and repetition to gain a reward is achieved in hours or days and is now called social learning or cultural transmission.

Robins defend their territory to the death.

An Englishman’s’ home is a castle. Robin’s feel the same about their territory. It’s all about security and survival.

Judith told us about two Robins which were perched on her garden fence facing each other. One of them puffed itself into a ball shape and other one stretched itself horizontally. Over the space of several minutes, the puffed up one kept on puffing itself up and the other one stretched itself even more horizontally and longer in length. It was obviously some sort of confrontation or was it! I'm not knowledgeable enough to identify the sex of the two birds, so it could have been two aggressive males (or females) or one of each sex (but which was which?). This spectacle was ended when the local squirrel popped up. She wondered if anyone knew what was happening.

Applepud responded quote "I have a very old book 'Bird behaviour by John Sparks published by Hamlyn in 1975'. It cost me 60p when I bought it brand new in 1976. I can't remember where or when or even why I bought it, but it has survived several house moves and just sits on a bookcase. I happened to notice it the other day and quickly looked through it to find out about the behaviour of Judith’s two robins. There was no information on the robins, but one section on hostile behaviour may be of help. I quote 'The postures adopted by threatening or sparring birds reflect how angry or frightened they are; a confident and very hostile individual will behave quite differently from a fearful defensive one, and so rivals can interpret each other's moods and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

A horizontal body posture indicates a high degree of confidence and aggression. An upright stance shows a really rather defensive and frightened bird'. So the two robins were probably disputing territory in a ritualised fashion. Hope this is helpful".

Various comments on the internet suggested that two males are rarely seen together. They are aggressive in defending their territory which they keep throughout the year. They will fight to the death to defend it and their initial life expectancy is only about 1 year. Those which survive this first year are clearly robust and can then live to about 12 years old.

Bird Brained?

People would be insulted if someone said they were Bird Brained. Perhaps they should re-consider because birds can be very clever as many examples testify.

Barbara told us about the behaviour of a Pigeon. "During a recent visit to Martin Mere I was in a hide overlooking a small pool and feeders. There was an insect box on a wooden pole with long feeders either side of it. A feral pigeon was sitting atop the box but unfortunately the feeders were just out of reach. Even sitting sideways and stretching out his neck, alas he was too far away.

However, whenever all the small feeding birds were spooked and flew away together, this set up a momentum and the sway brought the feeders within reach and hey presto it was snack time for the pigeon. He sat there for a good quarter hour, waiting, waiting, waiting so patiently. All of a sudden he decided enough was enough and sprang into action. He jumped up, flying at the feeder feet first like a fighting coot defending its territory. The feeder started to swing violently and he returned to his perch on the insect box. Each time the feeder reached him he just opened his beak and got the easiest mouthful of food ever. Whoever said pigeons were bird-brained?"

Judith agreed. "I recently re-erected my bird feeder after three months without one. Within minutes a squirrel was perched on top of the post trying to get at the squirrel -guarded feeders. The second visitors were a couple of wood pigeons, who went straight to the base where the seeds used to be scattered by the smaller birds. How did they remember after an absence of three months? No, pigeons are not bird-brained".

Nuthatches are strategic thinkers.

Nuthatches are delightful little birds. Judith told us about the first time she saw one and “especially when it 'climbed down' the tree I was amazed and so excited. Every time I go into Dunham Massey Park, I always look up into the trees hoping to see one and I usually do! In spring time they are very noisy and can be spotted quite easily. They are quite prolific in this part of the world. I like nuthatch so much that I might even change my Wikidot nom de plume (is that the right spelling?)".

Anyhow a friend of mine was telling me that she had a Nuthatch come to her bird feeder. It helped itself to some nuts/seeds then flew to the side of the house, where it deposited its load in a small hole in the brickwork. This behaviour continued for over half an hour. My Collin's bird guide does say that nuthatch visit bird tables in winter, in worst Rambo style scattering seed everywhere. It also says that nuthatch store food reserves. Obviously my friend's nuthatch has adapted itself to urban living! Does anyone out there know of similar nuthatch?

Bob was reminded of something seen on BBC Autumn-watch:-

Nuthatches have been observed putting food, especially seeds, in crevices in trees and walls of buildings. Two reasons have been put forward:-

• A food store – it has been said that they can remember where it is for up to 30 days. However the Eurasian Nuthatch is also said to save the food in the good times so that they can go back and get it when times are hard. I suppose this could be a lot longer than 30 days.

• A vice – quite a few birds are known to wedge seeds and nuts into crevices to make it easier to hack them open.

In Autumn birds have been seen at the side of roadways with overhanging trees, waiting for cars to come past and break the fallen nuts open so that they can easily take the seeds from within.

So what is the answer – Ridicule or Respect?

For me there is no doubt in my mind – birds are very clever and they deserve our respect - that was never really in doubt. But the real message behind this contribution is that you don't need to be an Ornithologist or an Ethologist to understand things about birds. All you need to do is to take the time to watch them and see what they do.

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