06 October 2010

Flock Behavior

Birds are mimickers and mockers. Mocking birds mimic the other birds in the neighborhood and parrots, some parrots, mimic the sounds of their humans and the microwave timer. I saw a bird on an Attenborough special mimicking other animals in the forest as well as bulldozers, chainsaws, and a camera shutter. The bird brain is largely dedicated to the task of mimicking sound in many species.

But birds are flock animals, and the mimics aren't limited to their noises. Birds shadow the behavior of others in their flock. Watch a group of sparrows bathing, or crows opening a trashed bag of Lays. It is about flock survival as much as anything. Watch a line of pigeons on a telephone wire for a few minutes, and chances are you'll see them eventually all take off together. They didn't necessarily all just happen to decide at the same moment to take off, one took off and the rest followed. If one member of a flock senses danger and lets loose an alarm cry, all the others go into panic mode, though they probably haven't seen what the fuss was all about.

When Cher spots a hawk out the window, she'll scream and usually fly back to her cage or perch. The other birds, whether they are in the same room or not, will start their screaming and evasive maneuvering based solely on the fact that Cher is panicking. Its not always a "run for the hills" kind of thing, though. They will also eat when they see another bird eating, sleep when they see another sleeping, or bathe when they see another splashing around in their water dish.

Yesterday Coconut saw that Cher had decided to take an afternoon bath in her water bowl, and he followed suit. It was the first time I've seen him take a bath. Cher makes ruining her day's water ration by plopping down in it a regular thing, but it was surprising and comical to see Coconut following right along in yet another show of his emerging personality.

What was interesting to watch was the different styles the two birds have when it comes to taking a dip. Cher takes an all-in approach. Her species comes from the Amazon rain forest, and she represents the moisture rich environment well. She plunges her head straight into the water and then flicks it up to let the water run down her back and belly.  Coconut is less inclined to drench himself in this way. He leans forward from the rim of the dish and dips his breast into the water. He'll dip a wing in just a little and flick a few droplets onto his back. He doesn't get near as soaked as Cher does.

Budgies come from drier climes in Australia and are basically food for everything that eats meat. They travel in enormous flocks and feed on or near the ground on grain and seed. The only water they normally come across is a lake shore or a drying puddle. As small food items, they need to get off the ground in an instant when trouble approaches. Coconut gets his bath, but he stays dry enough that he can still fly very well. He shares this bathing trait with Lennon; Cockatiels have a similar living arrangement in Australia.

One of the most fun aspects of having birds is witnessing their flock behavior in action. Because they spend so much time with us, we'll see them mimic what we do as well. If I go into the kitchen for a snack, the birds will hop down to the their dishes for a bite, or fly over to my shoulder to snag a beakfull of whatever I'm enjoying. One of the surest ways to get them to try something new is to eat it myself, and then offer it to them. If I fall asleep one lazy afternoon reading, you can bet the birds will all doze off as well.

I read an article in Bird Talk magazine about flock behavior in pet parrots and how stressed humans in the house can negatively impact the birds. The article suggested that parrots will feed off of your stressed out behavior the same way that they will feed off the fear alerts of others in their flock. "I don't know exactly what it is, but he's scared so something bad is out there." By living in a stressed out home, parrots can adopt a constant sense of uneasiness from their humans.

I love it when our birds act as little mirrors. It is cool to have them interact with us in this unique way.

Kenobi prefers to interact with cereal boxes.

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