Birds learn new ways

During our vacation here on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Miss D. and I have noticed some interesting behavior on the part of local birds.

On our first evening here, we dropped into a local supermarket to pick up a few essentials.  When we came out, we noticed a flock of small birds hopping from car to car.  They were carefully inspecting headlights, radiator grilles, etc. for dead insects and eating all they found.  It was very businesslike behavior.  Thinking about it, it was entirely logical, of course.  Many people drive hundreds of miles to get here, and accumulate lots of dead insects on the front of their vehicles in the process.  What better source of food for a hungry bird?  I wonder how long it took them to learn to look there?

Another group of small birds live around our condo, right on the coastline.  They make a habit, morning and evening, of hopping from balcony to balcony in very businesslike sweeps, looking for food.  They just made their evening pass while Miss D. and I were enjoying the late afternoon air.  One landed on the railing, looked quizzically at us as if to say, “Well, why aren’t you eating, dammit?  If you don’t eat, there won’t be any crumbs for us!”  Then, with an impertinent flip of his/her tail, the bird hopped around the dividing wall and onto the railing of the next balcony.  Around us, and in the building opposite us, we could see more small birds doing exactly the same thing.  They’ve clearly learned that at certain times of the morning and evening, pickings are often good.

There’s also a large blue heron that I see on the beach at sunrise every morning (I’m pretty sure it’s the same bird, due to the regularity of its behavior).  It’s fishing for crabs and anything else it can find in the tideline, but it’s clearly also learned that early-morning walkers on the beach often carry a breakfast sandwich with them, or something like it.  It won’t approach walkers, but it’ll stand there looking expectantly at them as they draw near.  When one of them tosses a scrap of bread, or bacon and eggs, or whatever, it’ll snap it up with a graceful hop and bob of its neck.  Must be the best-fed heron in the Gulf State Park!  There are also the regular dawn patrols of a dozen to two dozen pelicans.  They fly past, very low on the water, looking for fish.  Later, as the day warms up, they’ll fly in smaller numbers at greater height.  If a swimmer ventures out past the breaker line into deeper water, sometimes they’ll circle around them, craning their necks as if to ask in body language, “Well, where is it, then?”

All in all, the birds make it a lot more fun to be here.



  1. I drove to a friends house in WV last spring. It's about a 6 hour drive. After arrival, I was unloading the luggage from the back when I kept hearing a "click, click" sound coming from the front of the car. He keeps a flock of chickens that he allows free run of the front yard. About four of them were up there pecking the dead bugs off of the grill and front bumper.

  2. Some species definitely learn about new food sources. Hummingbird feeders, for example, have become increasingly popular in New England; the woodpeckers (of several species) have learned that hummingbird feeders are good food sources as well. The same with orioles.
    What is really interesting is that it appears to be communicated learning, i.e. one bird tells another bird about it, and their offspring. It isn't just repeated accidental discoveries by individuals.

  3. We have some loud mouth grackles here in south Texas. They do the grill cleaning routine as well. Their beaks are pretty big, and I've wondered if they can peck hard enough to cause a leak.

    My wife an I were on the Texas coast watching the sand wash around in the surf, when I saw a combat patrol of pelicans. Reminded me of

    Enjoy your time!

  4. Up in Washington State, we have these little sparrows that inhabit the parking lots of Safeway, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, anyplace they might find food. I'm surprised that they haven't caught on to the grill-cleaning trick yet.

    What I have seen are wasps that will pick the front of a car clean. It's real neat to see them at work.

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