Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advantages of Backyard Bird Feeding Part 1 - Behavior

Bird feeding is the second most popular hobby in the United States, right behind gardening. Watching birds at the feeder can be really fun but is under appreciated by many. What they likely don't realize is watching birds at the feeder can help you better understand bird identification and behavior. 

Today we'll tackle behavior.

There are two main kinds of behavior that you can observer, inter and intraspecific. Don't let the oddly similar words (that continue to confuse me) worry you. The meaning behind them is simple..

Interspecific competition is where individual birds of different species compete

Intraspecific competition is where individual birds of the same species compete.

So same species, or different species.

Like when a Blue Jay flies in and scares off the other birds. That is interspecific communication between that Blue Jay and those other individuals. The Blue Jay competing with those other individuals and influencing their behavior.

Boat-Tailed Grackles posturing in South Carolina 
(Ron Cogswell)
I spent a lot of time growing up watching Common Grackles interact in my backyard. These birds, which are found in large flocks across a lot of the eastern and central U.S., are scorned by many. If you can get past the noise they really are comical to watch. They spend a lot of time throwing their heads up and trying to intimidate each other. They call, puff up, and show off. If you watch them long enough you can start to see the social structure, who is above who on the social scale. 

You can see similar behavior in many species of birds from Brown-headed Cowbirds to Blue Jays and sparrows. 

This kind of competition can be really easy to observe, especially between birds of drastically different size or disposition (aggressive Blue Jays versus passive sparrows). Watching the behavior of birds of the same species takes more careful observation. Despite these challenges it can be very interesting.

Many species of birds live in flocks and have complex social structures which dictate who can eat when and with whom. If you watch a flock long enough you can start to identify individuals and understand how they all interact.

Having a bird feeder makes this a lot easier since food is one of the big things that birds compete over. Watch and see which birds spend most of their time feeding, which sit above each other on the feeder, or which chase each other off. The birds that win these interactions are often more dominant, or may be making a move up the social ladder.

If you don't have the space for a bird feeder of your own many parks and nature centers have feeders you can watch as well, either in person, or via web cam. (Check out this great South Texas webcam at Sabal Palms!) Its a good way to meet other birders as well!

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