understanding bird behavior, with cornell’s dr. kevin mcgowan
YOU’VE SEEN IT: Ducks stretching up in the water and flapping their wings, or rhythmically bobbing their heads. Red-winged blackbird males flashing their scarlet and yellow shoulder patches, or a male cowbird strutting around.
Yes, you’ve seen these and many more examples of bird behavior–but do you know what any of it means? Do you know not just the what, but also the why behind those actions?
I’m a longtime amateur birder and can ID a good number of species, but until I started taking online webinars and other courses with Cornell Lab of Ornithology maybe five years ago, I didn’t realize that my powers of observation were actually none too keen.
The instructor was Dr. Kevin McGowan, who has made a career of observing birds and asking and answering the why part. His Ph.D. in Biology from the University of South Florida focused on social development of Florida scrub-jays, and since 1988, when he came to Cornell University, he has been studying the social and reproductive behavior of crows. Kevin helped create the All About Birds website—an online resource that I literally use daily, and recently, he co-edited and wrote much of “The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State.”
Kevin McGowan joined me on the public-radio show and podcast to talk about bird behavior–and how we can learn to look more closely and more insightfully add up what we’re seeing. Read along, or listen on the player below or at this link to the September 7, 2015 show.
my q&a on bird behavior, with dr. kevin mcgowan of cornell
Q. We’re speaking in the start of September, so what’s going on up there in Ithaca? I have hummingbirds galore moving through my garden a couple of hours to the south and east of you; any signs of activity?
A. We’ve actually seen a bunch of warblers who have moved in this week—things from farther north, like the Cape May warbler, blackpoll, and bay-breasted warbler. Those don’t next anywhere near here, so the first of those are starting to come through. It’s fall in Upstate New York.
Q. One course you teach online is called “Courtship and Rivalry in Birds” and a new section begins in October that people can register for, correct?
A. That’s right; it’s a five-week course and we’re starting up the next section on October 21. [Details on the class.]
Q. That class was my indoctrination to looking closer. It says in the course listing that students will “learn to think like a bird.” So what are birds thinking about most of all; what influences their behavior?
A. They’re fairly simple, kind of like one of my college roommates. [Laughter.] They’re interested in food, sex and survival. He liked revenge, too, but the birds don’t; that doesn’t really work much for the birds, because there’s no good that comes out of it. That’s one of the fun things about the courses: We get to tease apart what people do and what animals do. A lot of the stuff that’s really important to us makes no sense if you’re not living in a big social group the way people do.
Q. So the drivers are kinship, and sex and available resources—making sure you have access to all those things.
A. Yes, those are the things that are most important. You have to be aware—most people don’t realize how brutal the world is. It’s a tough place out there for small animals, and they’re constantly on the edge of survival. So it’s a different world. They’re not playing; they’re serious. Every day really is life and death.
Q. When you start looking more closely—for instance, I had two examples I’ve probably seen before and I didn’t even know what was going on. Blue jays chipping latex paint off my house, caching it in their crop and carrying it away for building up calcium stores for use during nesting. And a female goldfinch collecting spider webs in her beak outside my window, and apparently using it like Krazy Glue to hold her nest together. All of these little tiny things going on around us all the time that we don’t even notice—and until I took your class I didn’t know to ask not just what, but why.
A. It makes you look a little closer; that’s what I like about it. When you look a little closer, there’s a lot going on right outside your window. Things that you see every day: If you take a closer look, they’re doing stuff you don’t even know, and it’s the important stuff, right in front of you.
As you say, you can see the goldfinch hopping along your window and might not think much about it. But in fact it’s very seriously busy trying to get the things that you didn’t even know were at your window.
We had a hummingbird come by here at the Lab the other day just moving along the windows along the second floor. She was looking in the windows, looking for spiders—because we have a fair number of spider webs on the north side of the building—spiders or whatever they’d caught. She was working her way down the building, and it was really pretty funny to watch.
Q. When you teach, you are careful to remind your students that anthropomorphizing animals, including birds, isn’t helpful in understanding them one bit. This is so hard for lay people like myself to resist projecting our human perceptions on to animals, but why is this so important to resist, when we’re observers?
A. You can’t learn anything about animal behavior by thinking of the animals as humans, but you can learn a lot about behavior if you think of humans as animals.
A. If you try to think in terms of what we’re trying to do, everybody has the same goal. But we’re going about it in a different way. And you’re right: It is human nature to try to put human characteristics and human motivations and emotions on animals. We’re prejudiced that way.
Our genetic mandate is to try to figure out what other people are doing. We take that machinery that has been built to anticipate what other people in your social group are doing…we take that machinery and then we focus it on birds. We can find a lot of the similarities, but it doesn’t really work.
If you took a circle and two little circles inside of it and a straight line, and put it on a table, people would see a face there. There is no face; it’s a couple of circles and a line, not a face. But we have this deep genetic machinery to look for faces. So we see them in tacos, and in the clouds, and things like that.
When we look at birds and other animals, we have the same kind of prejudices—it’s not conscious, but it’s human nature. Everybody does it. It’s to be expected.
What we try to do, when we try not to anthropomorphize, is we back up and ask what is the bird really doing. Don’t assign motivation; tell me what you see and not what you think you see. That’s really the only way to get in and tease things apart and find out what the birds are doing.
And it’s worth it—because they’re doing more interesting stuff than you think they are.
Q. They are. You encourage students to learn instead to interpret and understand–rather than just watching. So what are we watching with body movements like head bobbing, or those ducks who raise up in the water with so much wing flapping? [Top-of-page photo: A mallard doing so.]
A. A lot of them are displays that are meant to communicate something very specific. Not like, “Oh, I need to go to the store and pick up something,” and, “Can you get some for me?” Not that specific, but basic conditions, emotions—what the birds are feeling like: “I’m in the mood for love; how about you girls over there? Anybody want to hang out with a handsome guy like me?”
So there’s showing off–there’s a lot of showing off going on, especially among the ducks. Some of it is other stuff, like, “I’m a little nervous right now; anybody else nervous? I thought I saw a hawk.” That gets everybody else nervous.
That can be just a simple head bob. If you look at mallards, they have two kinds of head bobs, when they bob their head up and down. One of them, when they bob their head down and the male and female do that—that means, “I’m in the mood for love, are you?” Then once they convince each other they are, that’s when they mate.
But if you bob your head up, that means, “Uh-oh, I think I see something.” So it’s the same head moving up and down—but are you jerking it down or pulling it up? Those have two very different meanings to birds.
What you’ll see with the mallards who are popping their heads up, pulling them up, they’re about ready to fly, because they see some kind of a danger.
Q. So it’s body language, duck-style. [Laughter.]
A. You can learn a lot from ducks. And the nice thing about ducks is that they have a lot of what we call ritualized behavior. They do the same thing in exactly the same way every single time.
For example, flapping or bathing. If you watch a mallard bathing, it is going to end the bathing bout by standing up in the water, flapping its wings, leaning forward, shaking its tail in the air and maybe dipping its bill tip into the water. Every single time, they do that.
These sequences of events have come to mean something to the ducks. If they did it differently, then everybody would look at them as if, “Whoa, what’s going on? Is there some problem?” It may in fact be comforting for the ducks to see everyone doing the normal thing, and it makes them anxious if things don’t go that way because that could mean that something else is going on, and there may be danger around.
Sometimes knowing a bird’s moves can also help me ID it. I started by saying that all I knew how to do before was ID some birds, and now I’m looking deeper for the behavior and the why of the behavior.
But sometimes it can work in reverse: when I know that a species of bird acts like that, or it makes that move. For instance, there are two warbler species I see a lot in the garden that are orange and black: the American redstart [above], and the Blackburnian [below]. If I don’t remember who’s who, I do know if it’s the one that sort of does a fan dance with its tail, that it’s the American redstart.
That’s probably not a very scientific description. [Laughter.]
A. That’s actually a very good description. Those two are an excellent example of subtle differences in behavior that can stand out quickly, and you can make a fast ID. Once you get to know these guys, they do things different. Like some people can recognize people’s walks—like my wife says she could pick me out of a crowd by the way I walk.
Once you get to know the birds well enough, you can do the same thing.
Redstarts are cool because they’re actually trying to flush insects along the branches of the trees and then go out and grab them.
Q. It’s not a fan dance, huh? [Laughter.]
A. Well, it is sort of. What they’re doing is fanning their tails out, because they have bright spots in the otherwise black tail. They’re trying to startle the insects; they don’t know where they are, and they’re not picking through the leaves the way the Blackburnian warbler does.
The Blackburnian is trying to find them before they fly. The redstart’s just trying to beat the bushes, so to speak, to get some of them to fly up because it has a better bill for catching insects in the air.
Q. Interesting. There are other birds who flick their tails, like the familiar phoebe—who tends to nest near us, in our domestic environments, so a lot of us recognize it. I don’t know if that’s a balance thing, or what it’s about.
A. It’s what I call one of the twitches—some birds are twitchy. Actually with things like phoebes, we don’t honestly know why they bob their tails. We know they do, but it seems like it wastes a lot of energy. The phoebes don’t seem to use it in a foraging situation, the way the redstarts do, but there are other birds who do that. There are a handful of birds that are inveterate tail-bobbers, and I’ve not heard a convincing explanation yet for why they actually do it.
Q. So I’m in good company not knowing.
A. I learn something new every day; I learned something new today. I learned three new facts this week about birds, and that’s awesome. We’re always excited when we find out new things.
That’s kind of the fun of working with birds. They’re easy enough to see and understand that you can enjoy them immediately without knowing a lot, but there is so much going on that you can spend a lifetime. I’ve spent a lot of my lifetime, and I’m looking at new thing every single day.
Q. Let’s talk about some examples of behavior that even people who aren’t out birding would have noticed: when birds seem to congregate in big groups. It could be that crazy formation that’s called a murmuration [illustrated above]—so poetic and beautiful, when they’re moving in the sky in unison.
Or it can just be on the ground. I watched a video [below] from that you narrated, a mixed congregation of birds shot in Alaska on a beach, where bald eagles, crows, and gulls were all picking over a carcass together.
A. When animals of any kind, but specifically birds, get together in large numbers, they’re usually doing it for one of three reasons, or a combination of these three reasons. One is protection from predators.
When you see the starlings get together in those tight flocks and make those amazing figures in the sky, they’re doing that because they’re afraid of hawks that are somewhere in the near vicinity that are trying to catch a starling and eat it.
A. These guys are trying to stay together in a group that confuses the predators, and even if you can’t get away from them, you have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being “the one” that gets taken. So they’re literally trying to hide behind each other in these big flocks. That’s one reason: safety; safety in numbers.
Number 2 is something about food. It either is that there is a huge food bonanza that the animals can take advantage of—like in that video [above], there were tons of salmon carcasses on the beach. There was just so much food there that nobody could defend it all; it’s party time. There was enough for everybody, and it’s a huge congregation getting together for that.
Sometimes animals get together for food reasons when there is not a bonanza, but the presence of the other individual actually helps with the food gathering. There are these things called mixed-species foraging flocks, where your two warblers might be together in a flock and are moving through the forest, and as the Blackburnian is going along poking along under the leaves it might flush things that it’s not going to catch. But then the more flycatching redstart is sitting there and is going to catch it. By being close to each other and causing sort of a disturbance, the actual success of gathering food increases.
This also ties in with the first one: If you can have somebody else helping you guard against predators, then you can pay more attention to gathering food. That works whether it’s all of one species, or a couple of different species together. A lot of these animals get together because there is protection from predators and that helps them gather more food.
The third possibility is some kind of social event. This one is harder to understand, and harder to predict, and harder to know when it’s happening. Like when American crows get together in large roosts at night in the wintertime, I was once radio-tracking some birds that we were following to the roost. There was a big pre-roost party, a gathering where crows get together and chase each other and yell and do all kinds of stuff—then all of a sudden they get quiet and they fly off to the roost where they all go to sleep.
And I was tracking a couple of birds, and the party was over, and several of the radios headed off onto campus where the roost was—and one turned around and headed in the opposite direction, and he went home. He went to his territory, and spent the night in the trees with his family.
He wasn’t there to do the roost thing; he was there to do the party.
Q. Oh. [Laughter.]
A. He went to the slumber party but didn’t do the sleepover. It’s that pre-roost party where we don’t understand what’s going on. That bird was getting something; was doing something. But it didn’t participate in the final event, which was perhaps completely separate for function from the first bit.
Those things are exciting, and I think we’ll learn more as we improve our technology of being able to track individuals with satellite transmitters that show us that individual birds do things we don’t understand.
They have an interesting family structure. Don’t the siblings help raise subsequent generations?
A. They do. In some parts of their range the offspring don’t breed until they’re 3 to 5 years old, and while they’re waiting around, they generally stay with their parents and help the parents raise young the next year.
They have a family unit that is the basic structure or basic unit of their entire social system, kind of like we do. Although in certain parts of the world they probably don’t do that; there’s a lot of variability. That’s one of the things that’s built in to crows: An individual crow has a lot of options at every stage of its life.
They have this family unit, but they also have a neighborhood that they have some allegiance to as well. You keep your territory and you don’t let the neighbors in, but if a predator is attacking them, you go help.
They all know everybody in the neighborhood; they know what’s happening by what everybody else is saying. They know those individuals because a lot of them are going to get their first breeding attempt by replacing the loss of a bird in the neighborhood. Males especially generally find a breeding spot by replacing somebody near their home territory.
But beyond that, they also have a sense of crow-ness. I call them fun-loving party animals because they never like to do anything alone, or quietly. They like togetherness; they just like to be together.
There are a lot of animals like this; a lot of herding animals. If they can’t find their own, somebody they know, then they’ll just go find somebody who looks similar. We had a horse, my grandfather did, and it was the only horse, but it hung out with the cows because they were similar enough that it made it feel secure enough.
When crows go out to a big cornfield that’s just been harvested, there is food everywhere. But what they tend to do is cluster, and slowly move as a group across the field. That’s partly for protection, and partly it’s just a function of the other selective pressures that have been on them to be social and congenial.
Q. I always look forward to their visits, and when they announce themselves, I think it’s a good day it the garden. Thanks, Kevin, for joining me.
take a class with kevin mcgowan and the cornell lab
KEVIN MCGOWAN and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offer various distance-learning opportunities, including live webinars (also then available to purchase as downloads). There are self-paced tutorials on bird identification called “Be a Better Birder,” and multi-week live classes with extensive support materials and forums for student interaction, such as “Courtship and Rivalry in Birds.” Prices range from about $10 to $250ish. Browse among topics like:
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(Photo of American redstart from Wikimedia Commons. Blackburnian warbler from Wikimedia Commons. Murmuration photo collage from Cornell Lab of O website, usingPhoto collage: European Starling image by simonglinn via Birdshare; murmuration photo by ad551 viaCreative Commons. Mallard and crow photos by Kevin McGowan.)