Bird Brains

It probably comes as little surprise to many of you, but I’ve always liked the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds”.  In it, the avian population around Bodega Bay begin acting a little oddly.  Pretty soon, they all flock to put the hurt on the human population for no apparent reason.*

Well – a new paper coming out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts an interesting twist on bird behavior.  In an experiment carried out on the campus of the University of Florida, local mockingbirds were capable of recognizing individual human beings on day-to-day basis, make a “threat assessment” of them and carry out flushing and harassing activities on individuals.  Pretty amazing.

Better yet, in the experiment, different people walked near a mockingbird nest.  Some would touch the nest (very threatening behavior).  After repeating these actions for a couple of days, the parent mockingbirds would preemptively flush and attempt to drive away the “aggressive” persons, while more or less ignoring the literally thousands of student passers-by.  The flushing was not dependent on the clothes worn or on the direction of the approach.  The mockingbirds learned who the offenders were after – get this – two approaches.

So, as you’re hanging out in your back yard, think about this.  You may not be able to tell one finch or cardinal from another, but watch out.  They know who you are and where you live.  So be nice!

*Today, you’d argue they’d banded together to fight off natural habitat destruction, but in the 1960s, it was okay not to have a reason.  They just did.  And it was freaky.

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15 thoughts on “Bird Brains

  1. I have no doubt how smart birds are. I once had a little parakeet that played basketball by jumping down on the floor of his cage and throwing a little plastic ball up into his seed cup that was mid way up in the cage. He rarely missed. He made the game up himself. I've seen a mocking bird pull fur from a German Shepard's tail for some soft material to line its nest. Yes, birds are quit smart,brave and fun to watch.

  2. I watched The Birds for the first time last year (after Todd bought the Ultimate Hitchcock Collection — good grief! But that's another story). I kept hoping for resolution or at least a reason for why the birds were all feeling muderous, but no. No closure in that film.
    I read David Attenbourgh's The Life of Birds about ten years ago and have been fascinated and amazed by them ever since.

  3. I do love all birds, and really enjoy the ones in our garden. We had a robin nest this year in the back. The little male was exceptionally friendly with me and even came in our house if we left the conservatory door open, looking for the box of sultanas, I am sure. Now we have a family of starlings.I enjoyed this post.

  4. I was just a kid the first time I saw that movie and have seen it many times since. Every fall here in OKC we get gazillions of starlings. They form huge flocks that create black clouds in the sky and love to sit on the power lines at intersections. It truly looks like something right out of "The Birds." I keep waiting for the big attack.

  5. That's brilliant. I've always loved mockingbirds, they kick butt. Seriously. Any bird that can wake me up with my own alarm call at 4 in the morning is okay with me. ;) I love that they have our number.
    Have you read about the advancements in avian neuroscience? From what I've read they are re-naming most parts of birds' brains due to a rush of new information. Wish I could get in on that!

  6. Bobo, my cockatiel always whistles the "you look great" whistle when I come in the room. Very smart bird! :)
    Anyway, interesting information about birds. We have a lot of black birds & crows and they are creepy looking. I've often thought about that movie when I see them eating roadkill.

  7. QofB — the starling flocks sound amazing. When I lived in Delaware, my house was a home for some chimney swifts which were really fun to watch dive around the neighborhood.

  8. We have a fair amount of crows and ravens here, which always make me think of Stephen King's "The Stand". When I lived in Delaware, I had friends in the suburbs who had a house whose roof turkey-vultures used to sun themselves — incredibly creepy looking!

  9. I remember reading "The Stand" years ago. It was the most scariest book I think I've ever read, but for some reason I kept turning the pages! :)
    I was thinking about your post today, as I took photos of a robin feeding her babies. I'll be posting the photos later.

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