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When a Birdie helps a Birdie...

When a birdie helps a birdie…

By Shani Friedman

Observing bird behavior is an always intriguing activity.

While sitting out on the deck early in the day with a cup of coffee, watching the thistle, millet and hummingbird feeders, I witnessed an instance of a bird helping other birds. The Lesser goldfinches were at the thistle feeders in force.

Verdin photo by Doris Evans

A plucky Verdin fed at the Holland Hill window feeder. House Finches dominated the millet feeder. A male Broad billed Hummingbird perched and preened on a branch above his favorite feeder. Gambel’s Quail pairs drifted freely under the thistle feeders. Suddenly a Verdin loudly cried out a warning…gee-gee-gee-gee. An immediate hush fell over the feeding station. In a matter of a moment or two, all the birds had responded to the Verdin’s alarm cry. Not even a dove stayed around. Sure enough, a Cooper’s Hawk flew right in, perching in the middle of the mesquite that houses our feeding station. Alarm cries like this are one of the most common helping behaviors. Birds of many species and mammals respond to these loud alarms. Perhaps the motivation for making the alarm cry is self –serving. Many birds fleeing in a flock could distract the hawk from the Verdin, directing its attention to another unsuspecting bird.

In 1961, Alexander Skutch listed 130 species of birds that he defined as “helper” birds, i.e. “a bird who assists in the nesting of an individual other than its mate, or feeds or otherwise attends a bird of whatever age who is neither its mate nor offspring.” Helpers are a varied lot – of almost any age, of either gender, and of breeding or nonbreeding phase; they may help members of their own species, or other bird species, or even members of differing classes of animals. Help is offered in several ways.

Sometimes birds of the same or several different species unite to mob an intruder, like a hawk, snake or human. This could be a defense of one’s nest from the individual bird’s point of view, but mobbing behavior does assist others nonetheless. On the coast of Finland and Sweden, Turnstones and Tufted Ducks benefit from nesting among colonies of terns and gulls, which aggressively repel threatening intruders. Hooded Warblers and Semipalmated Plovers join neighboring parents in distraction displays. It is possible that these are unintentional incidents and that the birds may be unaware of the presence of others who may benefit from their behaviors.

Maybe you’ve seen one bird feed another. Most baby birds would not survive without parental feeding. This urge is so strong that it is found in other contexts. It is the first from of parental behavior seen, even amongst nestlings. Sometimes birds, especially males, are seen bringing food to their eggs. Parents who lose their young continue to feed for hours or days, even when they can find no one to feed. Mate feeding strengthens the pair bond and increases the time that the female can spend incubating. Some accounts of feeding are incredible…A captive raven passed food through the bars of its cage to a free Black Vulture. A Jackdaw pushed food into the mouth of a human with which he had bonded. A male Cardinal fed seven gold fish that came to the edge of a pool for the food!

Male birds who are anxiously awaiting the hatching of their own eggs, may feed young of birds nesting nearby. An adult male bluebird fed nestling House Wrens, much to their parents’ dismay, until his own young hatched. A male Carolina Wren fed not only his mate as she incubated her eggs, but also a Great Crested Flycatcher who was nesting in a nearby box. A House Wren fed young flickers that were nesting fifteen inches below his own nest. After his young hatched, he continued to feed both baby wrens and flickers. A pair of Oregon Juncos and a pair of Bewick’s Wrens were nesting on opposite sides of the inside of a garage. Despite the fact that the juncos often chased the wrens when they brought food for the young wrens, the male junco fed the nestling wrens and cleaned their nest as well. The wrens did not attempt to drive off the juncos.

Sometimes a bird loses its own offspring, or perhaps her young have fledged, buts the urge to feed or otherwise help young birds remains. After a Screech Owl lost her clutch, she cared for a family of flickers nesting in the same tree. Even though the flicker parents continued their duties, she brooded the baby woodpeckers for five days and even brought them a young bird to eat. After a male cardinal’s nest was destroyed, he took up feeding four American Robins that were only a few days younger than his own lost nestlings. For a week, he was as involved in the feeding of these four as their natural parents were. Harmony prevailed among the robins and the cardinal. After the Cardinal’s mate (who showed no interest in the robins) hatched a second brood, the male Cardinal continued to feed both families.

Along with feeding and cleaning nests, birds help other birds with preening. Young of differing ages and sizes are found in nests of herons and egrets. There are a few squabbles among the young, but on the whole, they get along fairly well. They alternate between preening themselves and those of their siblings. But if a heron from a neighboring family intrudes, a long and strenuous struggle precedes its expulsion. Rarer yet does an adult member of one species preen an adult member of a different species. Brown headed Cowbirds approach House Sparrows while bowing their heads and fluffing out their feathers, an invitation for preening. Perhaps the familiarity engendered by preening makes it a little easier for the Cowbird to lay her eggs in the sparrow’s nest later on.  

There are many reports of free, wild birds supporting disabled companions. An old, blind White Pelican, and adult Brown Booby with only one wing, and a sick Black faced Wood Swallow were all reported to be fed regularly all day long and kept alive by several of their companions. In captivity, a European Robin fed a former rival after the latter broke his leg.

It is possible that not all reports are accurate or properly understood, but the amount of reports of birds helping out other birds under a variety of conditions abounds. There are far too many to mention here. It makes me wonder, if a cardinal feeds goldfish or a raven helps out a vulture, could compassion exist amongst species of life other than our own?

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