For the Birds Radio Program: Bathing Swainson's Thrush
Last week I received a fascinating email from a listener who wishes to remain anonymous. She writes:
Three years ago my husband and I purchased a faux-cement fountain. The pool is round, almost a foot deep, about a foot and a half in diameter, and has a flat, six inch wide lip around the perimeter. Mosaic tiles cover the bottom of the pool … three slim jets of water spring forth from a fountain.
The birds seem fascinated by this body of water but also afraid because, unlike a regular birdbath, the water is deep. I can see the fountain from my living room window and never tire of watching the extremely cautious, circuitous approach the birds make to the fountain. First they fly near the fountain a few times, repeatedly landing in the branches of a fat cedar tree that is close by. Then they fly over the fountain a few times. Then they fly away as if they aren’t the least bit interested. Then they come back. They land on the wide lip but immediately spring off it. Then they repeat all of the above… The third or fourth time they land on the lip they usually hop around on it for a while, peering down at the water. …Eventually, when they have repeated all of the above several times, they finally take a sip of water
My listener continues: Three years ago a Swainson’s Thrush showed up one evening, just before dusk, in late August. It landed on the lip of the fountain and hopped around the entire perimeter, peering into the water. It was quite obvious that it was trying to screw up enough courage to go for a ‘swim.’ It lunged forward exactly like a little kid who starts to jump off a dock into the water for the first time but then chickens out. This must have gone on for a good twenty minutes to a half hour… It was getting dark when, FINALLY, it jumped in the water and skimmed the surface of the pool from one end to the other, flapping its wings wildly the entire time. Then it jumped back in and ‘swam’ from that end of the pool back to the other end
After that it became an almost nightly occurrence, always right around dusk. And each night it would have to screw up its courage all over again.
This year the Swainson’s Thrush has been ‘swimming’ in the daytime as well as at dusk but having its usual trouble screwing up its courage. Every time he leans over to drink from the fountain he seems more to be trying to get the courage to swim than to drink.
Last Sunday, around noon, he was sitting on the lip of the when suddenly a large bird (bigger then the thrush; about the size of a pigeon perhaps but squatter) landed on the lip of the pool. Without any hesitation whatsoever it jumped in the pool and went for a swim. And when I say swim I mean SWIM! My husband was watching with me and we couldn’t believe it. At one point it actually stopped flapping its wings and just sat on the water for a second or two. “Look,” I cried, “it’s floating on the water like a duck!” It hopped out of the water, shook itself, and then jumped back in and did it all over again, including the floating. Thrush was standing perfectly still watching the whole time. The second time when the bird got out of the pool it stood right beside the Thrush and shook its feathers. Then it flew off. It hasn’t been back since. I think it must have inspired Thrush though because since then it has been doing some really audacious swimming!!!
I get the distinct impression that the birds who come to the fountain and ‘swim’ ENJOY conquering their fears and are actually having a great adventure. In other words, they appear to be having FUN! Am I just anthropomorphizing or do you think that may actually be the case?
I of course don’t think my anonymous listener has been anthropomorphizing. Sometimes the best explanation for behavior is the simplest. Birds have more intelligence than we usually credit them with, but they also have a lot of interesting individual quirks that in humans we call personality. If you have interesting observations you’d like to share with our listeners, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org