Yesterday I spoke about the way birds may interact in your garden, with their own species, with other birds, and with you. Today, I want to briefly touch on differences in feeding.
If you watch different species coming to a feeder, you’ll notice they behave in different ways when they get there. To focus on an obvious common garden case, let’s look at Great Tits and Greenfinches.
A Great Tit arriving at a feeder will generally grab a single seed, then move away into cover. There, it will patiently open the seed up, grasping it under its feet, pecking away. A Greenfinch by contrast will sit and just open the seeds up in its bill. It will stay on the feeder till done, or disturbed.
If you’ve noticed this, then congratulations. you are seeing adaptation and variance, and are well on the way to being an evolutionary biologist! Pay even closer attention, you’ll start noticing subtle differences in the way different finches feed. It’s this sort of thing that Charles Darwin watched on the Galapagos Islands, that helped shape his theory of evolution by natural selection.
The study of animal behaviour is called ‘ethology’, so by watching the birds in the way we’ve discussed, you are acting as an ethologist. Congratulations!
It’s interesting to see how our approach to studying animal behaviour has changed. We’ve gone from a very mechanistic approach, cold, taking the view that emotion is a uniquely human concept, to considering animals as equally complex individuals. Few biologists would dispute animals show emotions.
Such thinking, now prevalent, was once dismissed as anthropomorphism (assigning human characteristics to non-human subjects). Women in particular were seen as unsuitable for such field studies, as they were incapable of the cold rational thought necessary. Their emotions would cloud their judgement. Fortunately this view was utter nonsense. Women are equally capable of the necessary detachment, and the belief in the cold and rational view of behaviour hasn’t held.
One of the best examples of an animal enjoying itself I’ve seen involved a young Magpie, and a Woodpigeon. The magpie was stalking up on the pigeon slowly. If the pigeon turned, the magpie immediately looked away. Once the wary pigeon relaxed, the magpie resumed its approach. Once it was close enough, it would pull the tail of the pigeon, then leap away, acting nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened. The magpie gained nothing from this game, it wasn’t trying to get rid of the pigeon. It just seemed to enjoy teasing its less intelligent relative.
The third and final part of this little series on watching garden birds will be up on Friday. For now though, what are your best garden bird stories?