For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Behavior

Original Air Date: April 5, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about how birds perceive the world—pretty much the way we humans do. (3:26) Date confirmed.

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Birds capture our eyes with their beauty, and we’re held under their spell by the intensity and magic of their lives—gravity­-defying flight, ethereal songs, exquisitely woven nests, tender, raucous, or downright silly nuptial displays. Birds do feats mere humans can only dream of: A Peregrine Falcon hurls through the sky, tracking and intercepting a duck or shorebird that itself is erratically wheeling about, and strikes the victim with its talons so precisely that its own fragile wings and body aren’t injured in the collision—all while flying 112 miles per hour. A three-month-old Ruby-throated Hummingbird, without any adult assistance or guidance, migrates from the northeastern United States all the way to the Texas coast, and then lights out over the Gulf of Mexico to fly non-stop over water a minimum of 620 miles to the Yucatan Peninsula. This bird is so tiny that you could mail ten with a single stamp, yet it performs this remarkable feat during hurricane season.

Birds, like all animals, learn about and interact with their world through their senses. And they’re more like humans than you may think. My friend Karen and I had babies within a couple of months of each other. We could tell Joey and Britta apart by their appearances, never mixing them up. We sometimes put them down together for naps while we visited together. The moment either of them woke up, we knew which baby was crying even from a different room, based on sound recognition. But if we detected a suspicious odor, we had to actually peek into the diapers to tell which baby needed a change. Both babies felt pretty much the same to me, and I can’t remember tasting either one. We humans may have five senses, but sight and hearing are the ones we most rely upon to learn about our environment and to recognize one another.

Birds, like us, depend primarily on their senses of sight and hearing—that’ s why the most noticeable things about them are their colors and songs. Avian communication is used to identify individuals, signal an intention to attack or escape. tell one another where they are, protect or take over a territory, indicate a desire to mate, or simply ask somebody to come play. Birds may also sometimes intentionally bluff or even deceive one another. Birds communicate with one another using visual displays and vocalizations—pretty much like people. Perhaps that is why birds are so endlessly fascinating to us humans—we are so different yet share so much in our perceptions of the world.

The more we know about a bird’s life, the more interesting that bird becomes, and the more easily we remember it. For the next few programs, I’ll be talking about bird behavior and how to study this fascinating topic. I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, because I’m so far behind in everything after finishing writing a book about teaching kids about birds—these programs have been pretty much lifted out of the book which will be released in August, so listeners can get a sneak peek preview.