Among ornithological specialties, one stands out especially well — behavior.
If hawks and owls are hiding in trees when seeking a meal or trying to sleep, the nosy jay or crow will find them. These vagabonds have been likened to warning systems in the bird world, as have been corvidae in general. Their high intelligence makes them think, and with that ability also comes amusement. If any of the corvid family are clustering around a group of trees, they have found something that you’ll soon hear about.
We walk the forest from time to time seeking birds to observe. Warning systems in closed areas becomes the job of songbirds, as the area is denser. Groups of birds like the Downy Woodpecker, chickadee, nuthatch, and Tufted Titmouse get together and watch each other’s backs during times of necessity. Some of these birds will be scanning the skies for hawks (specifically accipiters), the trees for snakes, and the ground for rats and other ground predators. Once something is spied, the birds will send out an alarm call for those that were not on alert.
The surprising thing is that studies have been conducted whereby birds and other animals like chipmunks and squirrels can understand what each other is trying to convey. There are differing alarm calls for known predators, suspected predators, and humans, and these animals will behave accordingly. Known predators like the Red-tailed Hawk elicit a different response and alarm call than a birder.
Some of us have also witnessed the appearance of an eagle over our favored birding venue. It never ceases to make one chuckle how an eagle, as large as it is, can be spied by a gull before a human knows that it is on the horizon. When a group of gulls lift off, rest assured that there is something to be feared on its way through. However, there are those unlucky few, like American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes that sometimes sacrifice themselves for the good of others.
Mississippi Kites that perch upon electrical lines usually hunt large insects and the very rare bird. However, most birds know that they are safe and will perch right next to them on the high wires, but the Swallow-tailed Kite will pick up nestlings and small vertebrates on the treetops. The swallow-tailed is more of a threat to birds, though it is not quite as plentiful.
One must pity the American Kestrel, minding its own business while hunting mice. During desperate times, when the Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks move in, it is the kestrel that loses its quarry, and no amount of verbal complaint will change the outcome.
Juvenile chickadees will fight to the death if one irritates the other. Writer once separated two on the wet ground before the inevitable.
During nesting season, a Baltimore Oriole fed an Eastern Phoebe that had recently fledged. It may have been the fact that the fledgling conveyed the fact that it was hungry and nature kicked in, but was the oriole simply helping?
Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.