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April 2021

Vol. 49, No. 2

About Books: I Know What it Is….But Why is it Doing That?

Mark Lynch

Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. John Kricher. 2020. Boston, MA, and New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

This is a book about bird behavior, how to understand some of the underpinning and meaning to what birds do, how they do it, and why they do it. (p. 1)

I am passionate about reptiles and amphibians, snakes in particular, and have been ever since I was a very young child. An early photograph of me as a toddler taken by my mother has me sitting in our yard covered with brown earth snakes (known at the time as DeKay’s Snakes) put there by my older brothers. In that photo I am smiling. Even now, as an older adult, I love snakes and get excited every time I see one. I currently own a geriatric rosy boa, now well over 45 years old, even though I now abhor the reptile trade and would never buy or keep another pet reptile. Early on I realized that you really cannot “watch” snakes unless they are in captivity. You look for snakes instead. You find snakes by turning over logs and rocks, or spot one crossing a road. If you are lucky enough to eventually see a snake, most of the time you can only watch as it quickly slithers away. It is a labor intensive enterprise with little reward.

Here in the northeastern United States, there are only a handful of species to look for, and two of them are state listed as endangered. Sure, snakes have some interesting behaviors, and I have thoroughly enjoyed watching an eastern hognose snake feign death or hearing a black racer vibrate its tail in dry leaves, sounding like a rattler. But the most common snake behavior I observe is being sprayed with foul smelling oily gunk from a water snake’s cloaca as I am helping it across a road. Here in New England, snakes are not even around for more than half a year. If you are a person with a passion for watching wildlife, it is a natural choice to start watching birds.

Birds are all around us. Some birds are present every day of the year. Even during our coldest and snowiest days you can see some birds with a little effort. You can attract them to your backyard even if you live in a city. Best of all, birds exhibit complex behaviors that are fascinating to watch. Even common species such as starlings, pigeons, and House Sparrows lead complex lives that make them worthy of our attention. Reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals live most of their lives away from human eyes. But birds are decidedly different. They can be watched searching for food, mating, migrating, and bathing all around us. Just go to a pond, a beach, a forest, a grassland, or even walk around your neighborhood, and bird behavior is on display for you to enjoy.

Birds are everywhere, from cities to prairies, over the oceans, in snow during the depths of winter. They are diverse, obvious, and colorful; produce remarkable sounds; and make elegantly structured nests in which to raise their young. They are out there for us to observe, over 10,000 species worldwide. (p. 1)

We have a wide choice of identification guides today, books that enable us, with some practice, to tell what species of bird we are looking at. But if you read only a field guide, your experience of the bird ends with the naming of that bird. Older, more leisurely, field guides used to include some details of how a species lived. Reading a late nineteenth century field guide like Birds Through an Opera Glass by ornithologist Florence A. Merriam, one is struck by how much of the text is dedicated to the bird’s behavior and personal details of how Merriam experienced the bird. In “Chimney Swift” Merriam writes: “And what a noise these swifts do make in the chimneys! If you ever had a room beside one of their lodging houses you can testify to their ‘nocturnal habits during the nesting season.’ Such chattering and jabbering, such rushing in and scrambling out!” (p. 17, Birds Through an Opera Glass)

Merriam certainly describes how the bird looks in flight, but there are also details of how swifts fly, feed, nest, and often run afoul of chimney sweeps. Contemporary field guides give us a detailed search image, but these older guides present a living bird.

Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, several things changed the way field guides were written. Field optics evolved well beyond opera glasses, allowing a person to observe the smallest pattern and color of feathers. Our knowledge of the occurrence of vagrants increased, so more species had to be included in any one regional guide. Small plumage differences that would allow birders to separate similar-looking species in the field meant that field guides increasingly focused on the look of a species and not its life history. Page space in today’s modern portable field guides is so crammed with succinct descriptions of plumage that there is no room for information about the lives of the birds.

The nature of enjoying birds has changed since Merriam’s time. Birding today is more about identifying a species and moving on, rather than spending an extended period of time with any one bird. Writing about bird behavior is certainly still around, but it is scattered among sources like species monographs or books about specific behaviors like migration.

The more you watch birds, the more they reveal. Watch flocks, watch individuals, and ask repeatedly, why is the bird doing what it is doing? What is it telling you about itself? (p. 9, Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior)

John Kricher’s Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior is a book that gives the birder a more complex appreciation of the bird. A bird becomes so much more than just a set of feather patterns that allow species identification. Kricher is Professor Emeritus of Biology at Wheaton College, where he has taught courses on ecology, ornithology, and vertebrate evolution for 48 years. He has spent many decades studying and enjoying birds. Because he has taught at the college level for so long, he knows how to communicate to a general audience, and this makes Bird Behavior a useful and entertaining book to read. This overview of bird behavior is the perfect companion to any field guide.

From the beginning of the Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior, Kricher emphasizes that birds have complex brains and are active, sentient creatures that make choices.

In his book Mind of the Raven, author and researcher Bernd Heinrich describes numerous examples from his years of study of the Common Raven. Heinrich documents such complex and emotion-laden behaviors as deception, cooperation, individual recognition, play (see “the mental bird-play behavior,” p. 45), fear, and, of course, memory and intelligence. (p. 37)

Birds know their own species and live high-speed lives where failure is not an option. They choose their habitats and adapt even to humans. Finally, “the birds you watch are watching you.” (p. 15)

Though they have minds, birds also rely on instinct from their genetic heritage, and their behavior reflects this complex interaction. How much of any behavior is inherited and how much is choice varies from species to species. “Birds are quick to develop search images both through their genetic endowments and through learning.” (p. 170) But observers have to resist the temptation of making anthropomorphic moral judgments about what they observe birds doing. “A birder must learn to take avian behavior at face value and not read more into it than is merited. That is a big lesson.” (p. 39)

The Cooper’s Hawk that takes a Mourning Dove in your backyard, mantles it, and leaves behind a bloody mess of gore and feathers is not “evil,” even though you may find yourself viscerally reacting that way. The hawk is doing what hawks do, and doves often end up as prey. “It is exhilarating to study bird behavior, but always keep it in context: they are birds.” (p. 39)

The Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior is divided into a number of long chapters with titles like “A Bird’s Brain and Senses” (p. 49), “Understanding Bird Diversity” (p. 65), “Feathers and Flight” (p. 85), “Social Behavior” (p. 147), “and “Real Estate, Mate Attraction, and Pair Bonding,” among others. Each of these chapters is subdivided into labeled sections. For example, “Maintenance Behavior in Birds (p. 107) contains sections on the annual molt cycle (p. 107), ectoparasites (p. 115), preening (p. 117), bathing (p. 120), head scratching (p. 121), sunning (p. 122), anting (p. 122), loafing (p. 124), and sleeping (p. 125). From this example you can see that the book is content rich. Kricher focuses on the general categories of behavior but cites many specific examples. This may make the book sound like a dry and technical read. But it isn’t. Kricher’s skillful writing communicates the scientific details of what is known about bird behavior with plenty of interesting examples and an attitude that encourages the reader to get out in the field and watch birds behaving.

Some years ago, while birding in the Ware River Watershed, we saw a male Scarlet Tanager land on the dirt road right in front of us. We watched for the next 15 minutes as the bird caught something on the road and then carefully ran its bill over its flight feathers. It was an example of “anting” behavior in which a bird catches an ant, keeps it in its bill, and runs the ant over the shafts of its feather. It is assumed, but not proven scientifically, that the formic acid produced by the distressed ant is helping to clean parasites attached to the feather. In Britain, we had seen another example of anting behavior while watching a Green Woodpecker roll in a large anthill. Turning to the anting section of Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior, I learned that: “Birds have been observed rubbing still-hot embers from fires on themselves and sometimes substances as strange as mothballs. The only explanation suggested for this behavior is that it could be repellent to lice or other ectoparasites.” (p. 123)

Another behavior that I often see in central Massachusetts ponds in fall is Ring-billed Gulls gathering around large flocks of Common Mergansers and stealing the fish they catch. This is an example of kleptoparasitism and is well known in a number of species like terns and alcids who are robbed of their prey by gulls. You cannot help but feel it is like the quiet kid in grade school getting his lunch money stolen by the class bully. But that is anthropomorphizing. As Kricher writes: “Being a victim of kleptoparasitism is a fact of life for many species.” (p. 193)

At the end of Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior there is a long list of references and books recommended for further reading. Specific studies are also cited in the main body of the book when they provide interesting examples. In the chapter on “Provisioning and Protection” (p. 165), Kricher sites an interesting study that describes how different species of birds can forage in different ways in the same habitat. This classic 1958 study by Robert MacArthur showed that five structurally similar wood-warbler species that nest in boreal (spruce-fir) forests often forage together in the same spruce and fir tree and use different parts of the tree while employing somewhat different foraging behavior. The five species, now known among ornithologists and ecologists as MacArthur’s Warblers, are Cape May, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted, and Yellow-rumped (called Myrtle Warbler when MacArthur published his study).

The Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior is the latest title in the Reference Guide series, which to date has included monographs on subjects like molt, owls, and sparrows, all written by a single author. Like the other books in the series, this is a large format book, with beautiful color photography on most pages. All these volumes belong in the library of any serious birder.

In the Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior, John Kricher has done a commendable job of creating a readable overview of most bird behaviors that we see in North America. It is easy to use and fun to read. You can read this book cover to cover or just dip into it whenever you see a bird doing something worthy of putting it into your field notes. There is still so much we don’t understand about what birds are doing.

Having thought about, observed, and studied birds for the vast majority of my life, I know perfectly well what a bird is, anatomically and physiologically, but I still am far from fully understanding what a bird is mentally. I do know this much: these intriguing, indeed beguiling, wonders of nature know more than they are telling. (p. 301)

NB: I conducted two interviews with John Kricher about the Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior. Here is the link to my second interview:

<https://www.wicn.org/podcast/john-kricher-bird-behavior-2/>

Reference

  • Florence A. Merriam. 1890. Birds Through an Opera Glass. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

Listen to a podcast by Mark Lynch with this author:

 

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