We have quite a few bird feeders at Dans Bois. In the winter we have suet feeders to attract the nuthatches and woodpeckers; peanuts for the Blue Jays; and black oil sunflower seeds, meal worms, and wild bird seed mixes for the other over-wintering birds. In the summer we have a feeder and plant flowers to attract hummingbirds. Of course, they don’t always stick to those rules…and then there are the uninvited guests: squirrels and wasps.
It is fun to watch these animals as they interact with each other and the feeders. For example, you can almost set a clock to the mating pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. This winter they have shown up every morning at 8 am, unless of course they sleep in, like us, on a particularly cold day. Dave enjoys watching them as he drinks his morning coffee.
The nuthatches, Chickadees, and Common Redpolls use the nearby Trembling Aspen as shelter and make quick trips to the feeders. The proximity of the tree to our house is ideal, as we can take stunning photographs through the window, while still enjoying the warmth of our wood stove. The birds completely forget the need for shelter though when we let the feeders get too low. Instead they spend more time flying at our windows to tell us that we have let them down.
In the summer it is frustrating to see the wasps chase away the hummingbirds; despite all our efforts to keep them away. We went through a few hummingbird feeders before we settled on one where the wasps were not able to get at the nectar.
While it is amusing to be able to interact with nature in this way, it made us wonder how much of this behaviour is natural, and just how much our feeders change normal behaviours. We are not the first. A quick search online provides many scientific studies about the effect of birdfeeders on behaviour.
In fact we even learned a new word. Neophilia: a strong affinity for novelty. A group of scientists¹ put a novel item (a piece of bright green gum with a tuft of hair sticking out of it) near bird feeders and measured the timing of the arrival of birds to the feeders compared to when the feeders were gumless. They found that urban birds have higher levels of neophilia compared to their rural counterparts. Similarly, another group² found that birds were tamer at bird feeders. They measured the “flight initiation distance”, i.e. how far a person had to be away from a bird for it to fly away. They were able to walk a lot closer to birds at feeders before the bird flew away than they could when the bird was not at a feeder.
Another group³ decided to perform a study to see if wild birds teach each other learned behaviours. They set up a bird feeder with puzzles that, if solved, provided food. They captured and trained a few birds from different areas how to solve the puzzle and released them back into the wild. Then they compared untrained birds in those areas with untrained birds from other areas that had no trained birds to teach them (controls). They found that when there was a trained bird, more birds were able to figure out the puzzle and get the food than the controls. This even resulted in established “traditions” that were passed down over generations. How cool.
Our birds have enjoyed black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seeds, and suet for quite a few years at this location (we did a little bit of research of our own). I wonder if, by consistently offering the same feed for so long, we humans have changed their behaviours in some way. Also, when we arrived this year we introduced new feeders, who knows just how much that threw their traditions for a loop.
We have definitely trained our birds to know who is boss (them) and that dogs are their friends: they can’t fly and like to chase those pesky squirrels away.
If this post has stoked your interest in bird research, there are a lot of bird specific citizen science projects that you can get involved in. For example, check out the volunteer programs across Canada through Bird Studies Canada.
1. Tryjanowski et al. (2016) link: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep28575
2. Pape Moller et al. (2015) link: https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arv024
3. Alpin et al. (2015) link: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13998
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