11 Birdbrained Behaviors
Our state ornithologist answers, 'Why do birds do that?'
By Cliff Shackelford
When my kids were newborns, I never knew how fascinated I’d be with their behaviors — and the questions they inspired. Why this? Why not that? When my kids became toddlers, they had new behaviors, and I had more questions.
Now that one’s a teenager and the other a preteen, the list of interesting behaviors I’ve observed and my questions that accompany them (plus the few answers that explain them) might be as thick as a big-city phone book.
It’s much the same for non-human animals.
Did you ever wonder why your backyard mockingbird, while foraging on the lawn, flashes its wings? Is it to startle potential prey hiding in the grass? Perhaps. Scientists specializing in animal behavior, ethologists, often don’t have all the answers, and many don’t agree on why the mockingbird is so flashy with those wings.
Ethologists have described many things birds do, so let’s take a peek at 11 bird behaviors that you may encounter when afield in Texas. These kinds of behavioral questions keep observers like you and me interested and searching for answers.
Consider yourself lucky if you’ve witnessed the courtship displays of any hummingbirds. Males are colorful and flashy for one reason: sex! Who wouldn’t think this male Lucifer hummingbird from Brewster County is sexy? The female, drab and plain, can tend to the nest without being spotted. But she might end up being a single mom. That’s right, hummingbirds are polygynous — one male will mate with multiple females. If he looks good and does the courtship display just right — a series of fast maneuvers and dives — he’ll be successful with the ladies. But that’s his only contribution during the nesting cycle; he won’t assist with nest-building, incubation or tending to the young. In fact, he might not ever “meet” his offspring until they’re old enough to feed at the flowers or feeder he guards. He’s not interested in sharing that food source, so he might just scare them off as he would any foe.
Grabbing Some Golden Rays of Sun
No, birds don’t tan, but they can get a lot of warmth from the sun, and a damp bird can dry off in rays of sunshine. Those early morning vultures aren’t holding their wings out to look big and mean; they’re trying to dry the morning’s dew off their feathers. Wet feathers can compromise steady flight. Anglers will notice anhingas and cormorants, both diving birds, doing the same thing out on the lake when these birds dry off after a quick dive for a meal. One of my favorite sunbathers is the greater roadrunner (above) on a cool morning. It faces its back to the sun, sometimes drops its wings, and fluffs up the feathers on its back to expose a small patch of skin that serves to warm the entire bird.
Is the Butcher on Duty?
You don’t place your order with this butcher, but you sure know when he’s around by the treasures impaled on your barbed-wire fence or thorny bush. Known colloquially as the “butcher bird,” the loggerhead shrike is a formidable predator — it’s actually a songbird but acts like a raptor-wannabe. Theories abound as to why they impale their prey: to save the prey for later, to warn strangers to keep out or to show the lady shrike what a good provider they can be (so let’s have kids). There’s a long list of favorites for the shrike, from grasshoppers to beetles to mice to, gasp, other songbirds!
Avian Yoga Moves
Balance and elegance are at their best in the avian world. How is putting all your weight on one leg relaxing enough to sleep? When I saw this as a kid, I used to think there were a lot of injured one-legged birds on the Gulf Coast. Don’t be fooled — this black-bellied plover and most of these other birds are healthy birds complete with two legs. Humans tend to shift their weight from one leg to the other, but we don’t tuck our unused leg up like a yoga master. Birds do this to minimize heat loss through their feet, especially those with longer legs.
Sapsucker Wells or Gunshot Scars?
When it looks like someone with a tommy gun sprayed horizontal rows of holes into the bark of a tree, it’s probably the work of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a member of the woodpecker family. No, they don’t kill the tree — what they’re after is a live tree oozing fresh sap. The sap wells not only provide tasty food (remember maple syrup) but also act as a sticky trap for hungry insects that taste good to the sapsucker. The idea is to create small wounds on the tree, but the tree, if healthy, will fight back by covering up the wounds with protective sap that soon hardens — like a scab that forms on a scratch on your arm or leg. Like those harvesting maple syrup in the North, sapsuckers have to make the rounds by chiseling off any hardened sap so the fresh stuff will flow.
Some Wrens Build Extra "Dummy" Nests
Every year in our back-porch shoe cubbyhole, Mr. and Mrs. Carolina Wren build a typical nest: a mess of leaves and grasses larger than a softball. After watching them for years, my wife and I discovered we’d been duped, because these wrens build “dummy nests.” Nesting pairs of certain wrens will build one or more extra nests that will never host eggs or nestlings — they look like complete nests, but they’re fakes. The tending adults will bring in food, pretend to feed and even emit the high, squeaky sounds of a begging nestling bird. This way parent birds can lead any watchful predators — “the dummy” — to the fake nest while the real nest is elsewhere, safe and sound.
Acorn Woodpecker Granary: Nature's Cupboard for Storing Food
When I was young, watching woodpeckers got me hooked on birding. Unfortunately, I did not grow up in the range of the acorn woodpecker. Acorn woodpeckers are very vocal and approachable, live in family groups and don’t bother trying to hide. They’re often front and center on a telephone pole or snag — favorite perches that can be absolutely riddled with small excavations made by the woodpecker. The woodpecker shoves one acorn per hole as a way of caching food for later — Mother Nature’s cupboard for dry goods! Lots of other acorn-loving critters — from jays to squirrels — want to clean out that cupboard, so these colorful and raucous woodpeckers are vigilant in keeping intruders away from their larder. These sites are known as granaries and can be used for generations. In the mountains of southeast Arizona, we rented a cabin on which the wood siding had become a granary. When we were inside that cabin during daylight hours, we realized that the tapping sound wasn’t someone at the door but an acorn woodpecker expanding its granary right outside.
Bathing in Dirt to Get Clean
A dust bath certainly doesn’t sound refreshing, but for certain birds, dust bathing is important since it helps eliminate ectoparasites and unwanted oils from bird feathers and skin. If you see a plume of dust coming from well below knee-level, stop a moment and watch to see what’s happening. It could be a feathery surprise in the middle of a dust bath. Watch how the bird puffs up, allowing loose substrate to reach its skin. This sort of non-water bathing happens more in arid climates, but I’ve seen house sparrows and brown thrashers doing it in the eastern half of the state, where there are plenty of creeks and puddles. Maybe this scaled quail can’t resist rolling around in the dirt; I’ve seen plenty of kids and dogs enjoy it.
Diaper Service for Birds
Birds might not exactly change diapers on their young, but they often do remove what are known as fecal sacs — nature’s tightly packaged white balls of poop that many nestling birds deposit. Bird parents such as this barn swallow use their bills to haul the fecal sacs far away so the smell won’t grab the attention of a nearby predator. Remove the mess and smell of the fecal sac and the nest will stay clean and dry. Don’t be surprised if your backyard songbird occasionally ingests a fecal sac. Yep, you read that correctly — they sometimes eat Mother Nature’s diaper. Yuck!
And the Oscar Goes to ... Mr. and Mrs. Killdeer!
Once hatched, baby killdeer, which are cuter and fluffier than any adorable stuffed animal, don’t stay in the nest but begin to run around in a few hours once their feathers have dried. These babies could easily attract the attention of a predator, but if you get too close to the nest or youngsters, the parents will fake an injury (like a broken wing) to draw attention away from the fragile eggs or young. This tactic is used by many ground-nesting species, but none is as masterful as the killdeer. It works so well that this bird deserves an Oscar for a great performance.
Songbird Mobbing: Pitching a Fit
There’s no better “neighborhood watch” program than the one our local songbirds maintain. If there’s a raptor, cat, snake or other predator spotted in the area, the songbirds gang up and “mob” the intruder, trying to scare it off. Lots of quick dive-bombs and hollering will let the intruder know the jig is up. Predators like this crested caracara usually work with the element of surprise, so when they’re fussed at by a northern mockingbird, it’s time to move on. Once this happens, peace is restored, and the birds will separate and go back to their daily activities.