But not all birds are what they appear to be…
There is another; one whose actions are so grisly, they’re the stuff of nightmares.
I’ll save the murderous “bird next door” for later. First, let’s investigate some peculiar, but safe, bird behaviors.
A Proud Homeowner
I rarely meet an unmarried man who cares about how his place looks.
No matching towels, coordinated sheets, or a complete set of plates… If only these men took a cue from the behavior of the bowerbird.
Male bowerbirds form structures called bowers, and their sole purpose is to entice a female bowerbird to mate. They’re not nests.
See also: Where Do Birds Sleep at Night?
Bowers have three features:
- a domed tunnel of sticks the female can enter at one end and see through to the other end;
- a courtyard at the end of the tunnel opposite the entrance used by the female;
- a sapling with an assortment of vegetation at its base.
While there’s a blueprint for bowers, each of the 20 species, in fact, each bird, adds its unique flair to its decoration.
Martha Stewart’s Protégé
Once he has completed his bower, the male bowerbird collects objects of all sorts and places each in his courtyard, often moving the same object multiple times until he’s satisfied.
Among the objects in these courtyards, scientists found flowers, dead beetles, seeds, colored pebbles, bones, shells, fruits and berries, leaves, iridescent insects, and spider webbing.
Other items had human origins: bits of glass, cloth, bottle caps, aluminum foil, straws, and other colorful items.
Some bowerbirds paint the walls of their bowers with plant juices, charcoal dust, and saliva, using pieces of chewed bark as paint brushes.
But here’s where things get weird…
Scientists conducted a series of experiments. As if they were rearranging furniture, they would move pieces of bowerbirds’ collections. Each time the scientists moved an object, the birds would return to their bowers, notice the changes, and move the pieces back to where they “belonged.”
The males are meticulous about what they place and where because the arrangement has everything to do with attracting a mate. If his decorating isn’t to the female’s liking, she moves on.
To read more about the fastidiousness behavior of male bowerbirds, check out this article about the great bowerbird and its use of items to create optical illusions.
And They’re Off!
“Race ya!” is a challenge no kid can resist.
I can remember being about 10 years’ old. I’d be walking with a friend and, without warning, get a jab in the arm as my companion took off yelling over his shoulder. We never knew where the end line was. We just kept running until one of us got ahead of the other and claimed victory.
For Clark’s grebes, running is a more serious matter. There are rules to their races.
It begins with one grebe mimicking the agile movements of another. They move their heads back and forth purposefully, bending their long necks toward their backs in a dance reminiscent of a romantic tango.
Suddenly, without warning, the two simultaneously hold their heads high, thrust out their chests, hold their wings stiffly back, and begin literally to run across the water.
Moving their feet at an awesome rate of between 14 and 20 steps per second (the fastest humans can only take 5 or 6 per second), they explode from the starter’s line and sprint approximately 60 feet before diving back into the water.
This behavior, called rushing, is an incredible site, and it’s critical to the grebes’ mating ritual. It’s also widely recognized as one of the more elaborate rituals among North American birds.
The ritual continues…
After the dive, each bird resurfaces with a weed in its beak. Holding their respective banners, the pair dances again. They straighten their bodies and this time sway chest to chest.
If wings were arms, they would surely embrace.
Finally, the pair dip their heads into the water numerous times and bring them back up while wagging their beaks. The action creates noticeable splashing. After the greeting, the grebes mate, build a nest, and raise their chicks together.
According to Ed Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, “The loggerhead shrike is a hawk trapped in the body of a finch.”
Nicknamed “the butcherbird,” the loggerhead shrike is a small carnivorous bird whose prey includes crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers. It also hunts small animals, some three times its own weight—mice, lizards, frogs, and other small birds.
Carnivorous birds are not unusual. Eagles, hawks, falcons, ospreys, kites, owls… they all hunt live prey.
What they don’t do is impale their kill on barbed wire and twigs!
Imagine cruising down a southern U.S. highway when you look to the side of the road… and there you see more impaled frogs on wire fences than dead vampires in a Blade movie.
Knowing the unfortunate creature is dead before it’s spiked offers little comfort to the faint of heart.
And how it kills isn’t pretty, either.
Shrikes grab the nape of their prey’s neck with their hooked beak. Then they shake their heads with such force the prey’s body swings one way and its head the other, breaking its neck.
My portrayal of the loggerhead shrike is all written with tongue in cheek. We cannot use human standards to judge nature’s code.
The loggerhead shrike has evolved into an impressive hunter. And their means of storage has its purpose. With it, shrikes can save their prey for leaner times. Sometimes their prey is poisonous. By storing it and waiting a few days, the poison breaks down, making it safe to eat.
The variety among bird behaviors is matched only by the variety of birds. What we can learn about birds warrants we protect them.