Klemek Column - Wild Bird Behavior

Blane Klemek
Submitted

One of my favorite subjects is animal behavior. Why animals behave the way they do provides us with endless questions that often are unanswerable. Yet while many behaviors are explainable and have specific meanings under certain contexts, we are frequently left wondering why anyway.

Take for example a private landowner that I heard from many years ago who told me about a ruffed grouse and its strange behavior. He informed me that some years prior to our discussion that a grouse took up residence on his property near Bemidji. In fact, it started roaming grassy areas near the house and uncharacteristically out in the open.

Some days later the grouse began perching on his deck’s railing, in the small oak trees in the yard, and then on the roof of his house. At first he didn’t mind, in fact he enjoyed it, but several days after the bird’s appearance, his family brought home a six-week old puppy. Soon after that, he told me, the grouse began approaching his wife and young daughters whenever they took the puppy outside. And one day the grouse flew at them from the rooftop of the house, swooped down at their heads, landed on the grass, and began attacking them and the puppy!

He said that the grouse was so aggressive that when he came upon the scene to help, his wife was keeping the attacking grouse away with a broom as it kept up its relentless pursuit of them and the puppy. The family retreated, the grouse continued its attacks, and it eventually had to be euthanized in this case.

To any birder or wildlife enthusiast who spends time outside, similar interactions with wildlife can and do occur. Birds that are protecting their territories, nest sites, and young have swooped at many of us—barn swallows, phoebes, red-winged blackbirds, and others.

Black terns are notorious for their boldness. Once while wading a North Dakota wetland in the early summer of 1998 while conducting my graduate research work, an entire colony of black terns took turns dive-bombing me in defense of their nesting area. So persistent were these birds that I truly thought that at any moment my hat would either be knocked off my head or that injury would result.

Years later while summer while working on a private landowner’s property near the Crow Wing River in Wadena County, I had a similar ruffed grouse experience as the gentlemen I wrote about earlier. I had just flushed several grouse chicks from a patch of tall grass and willow and was standing there observing them when a much larger grouse appeared, surprising me.

The bird was the chicks’ mother and she was not happy! She vocalized and flew from the dense cover straight at me, but stopped short of actual contact. Still, I remember feeling the wind from her wings on my face. Call it a bluff or whatever, the mother grouse accomplished her intent by distracting my attention away from her young ones as all of them scattered and flew in all directions.

Sometimes adult birds will use the well-known “broken wing” strategy in a decoy maneuver designed to lure a predator (or us) away from their offspring. Ducks and killdeer are especially adept at this. If you’ve ever happened upon a pair of nesting killdeers, the two adults will typically combine forces to divert you from their chicks. One or both will vocalize loudly while one drops a wing to the ground, feigning injury, and run just out of your reach to tempt you to follow it. The noise of their calls and the broken wing behavior all act in unison to confound you while the young birds run—usually unseen—to safety.

Many species of hen ducks will do the same thing, but on the surface of water. I have often stumbled near a brood of young wood duck or blue-winged teal ducklings while the hen noisily quacks and loudly paddles the water with her wings in a commotion not unlike the sound a paddleboat makes. She will continue the broken wing technique in one direction while her brood skitter across the surface of the water in opposite directions.

Indeed, these and other often bewildering behaviors displayed by wild birds and other creatures are interesting and exciting as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.