The Behavior Patterns of Birds
Todd A. Culver
Birds have many behaviors that help them to survive. Some of these are learned behaviors, but many others are not learned. Behaviors that animals are born with are called instinctive behaviors. Some instinctive behaviors help birds recognize enemies. Great kiskadees display an instinctive behavior related to coral snakes, which eat young birds. Even though they have never seen a snake, hand-raised great kiskadees are frightened by sticks that have been painted to look like coral snakes. Newly hatched herring gulls know by instinct to peck at the red spot on the bill of their parents in order to be fed. Pecking becomes more accurate as the baby gulls learn to anticipate the position of their parents' bills when they return with food.
Birds also learn very well. Young birds learn to recognize predators by observing the behavior of other birds. Many species of birds make loud, scolding calls when they discover predators such as owls, cats, or snakes. Flocks of birds attack and usually drive away the predator — a behavior called mobbing. Inexperienced birds quickly learn to associate danger with mobbing. Some birds learn how to build better nests as they get older and more experienced.
Living in a Community
Birds that stay all winter in northern regions have little time to do anything but find food, water, and shelter. Some species form large social groups called flocks. Among these species, some form flocks in the winter, some remain in flocks year-round, and others never form flocks at all. Living in a flock has two big advantages: It is easier for the many eyes of the group to find food and to spot predators. A bird in a flock is much less likely to be killed by a hawk than a lone bird singled out for attack. Usually all the birds in a flock do the same thing at the same time — they sleep together, feed together, and sometimes even breed together
Often, winter birds living in small flocks establish a system of dominance, which is sometimes called a pecking order. Pecking order is organized so that each bird pecks another bird lower in standing within the group and submits to pecking by birds of higher rank.
In flocks with dominance systems, the highest ranking bird gets first choice of food, water, even mates, while others wait their turn. Dominance helps all the birds in the flock to survive by reducing competition. Being lowest bird in the pecking order is better than fighting over every scrap of food with all the members of the flock.
Birds use a variety of methods to protect themselves and their offspring against enemies. Some birds that are colored or patterned so that they blend with their surroundings can often remain undetected if they stay still. This type of protective coloration, or natural camouflage, not only helps a bird avoid enemies, but it also helps a bird get close to prey without being seen.
Other birds may flee or hide. As a last resort and if it cannot escape or hide from danger, a bird will fight using its beak, legs, or wings, depending on its species. Sometimes, a bird will try to distract an intruder from its nest by making a noisy disturbance or pretending to be hurt and, therefore, easy prey. Once the intruder follows the "wounded" bird away from the nest, the "wounded" bird flies off.
Establishing a Territory
In general, male birds migrate north before females. They need to arrive early to stake claim to a territory. A territory is a fixed area that is defended continuously for a period of time. Most birds defend territories during breeding; some defend territories all year long. Both males and females defend territories, but most often it is the male who works hardest to defend the territory. Birds establish, maintain, and defend breeding territories in order to attract mates, find appropriate nest sites, and find enough food to raise hungry nestlings.
Bird songs may sound beautiful, but birds do not sing to make music; birds sing to attract mates and to tell other males to stay off their territory.
Birds are capable of an enormous variety of vocalizations. Traditionally they are divided into two groups: calls and song. Calls are short, simple vocalizations such as calls of distress, feeding, flight, flocking, and warning. Songs are long vocal displays with specific repeatable patterns. Normally only males can sing. However, some females, such as northern cardinal females, sing quite well.
Birds can sing more than just one specific song. Birds generally have between 5 and 14 songs, but some species have many more. Northern mockingbirds and wrens are capable of producing hundreds of songs. Besides helping males to defend their territories and attract mates, songs can warn others about potential dangers; can say "Here I am — where are you?"; and can tell other birds the species, age, sex, and experience of the singer.
No two birds sing exactly the same song. Subtle differences in the pitch and timing of songs are used to recognize individuals. Birds are able to identify their mates, young, parents, and neighbors. Penguins returning to nesting colonies that may have tens of thousands of birds are able to locate their mates by picking out their unique call from the deafening chorus of the colony.