Oops. There’s a bird in my house.

Oops.

There’s a bird in my house.

Again.

Carolina_Wren1
By Dan Pancamo (Flickr: Carolina Wren) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s clinging to one of the blades of the ceiling fan. No, wait! Now it’s on the lampshade. Oh, and now it’s flapping spasmodically at the window–seeing the trees, drawn to the trees, but barred by glass and walls, possibly forever…. No. This cannot stand.

The door is still open. The bird just needs to find it and aim for it, and it will be free.

Why was the door open?

The door is often open because I like it open. I like the sounds of nature–a breeze jostling the leaves of the mature oaks that preside over my backyard, birds saying undecipherable things to each other in cheeps and chirps, squirrels scolding my cat for being a predatory jerk who belongs in the house.

windows don't open
Sights but no sounds, unless I open the door…

The windows in my living room look out on all these living things, but they don’t open. So I can see all this life. but I can’t hear it, and I want that. The door opens onto an enclosed deck, and when the door is open, my dog and cats can come and go at will. I like that I can spice up their day by giving them choices, and access to places that interest them. Especially my little blind cat, who lives in a world of sounds without sights. The great outdoors is too dangerous for him, but in the safety of the deck he can dream of wild ways.

daredevil on my lap
Laps get boring. The deck beckons…

This door-propping behavior is unpopular with my family. Some of these living things I want auditory access to…they find their way inside. Or really, they lose their way and wind up inside. Usually it’s just bugs. Which make great cat toys–especially buzzy, frantic cicadas. And naturally (this is nature, after all) there’s the occasional wasp, which freaks out my kids.

I tell them beating their fear of wasps is one of the most empowering life changes they’ll ever make. Imagine becoming someone who can dispassionately observe all that flamboyant whirring and ominous hovering and just think to yourself, mmm-hmm. There goes a wasp. That is so cool.

European_hornet_lateral_view
By Trancelius (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I am this someone. I wasn’t always, but now I am. And I feel smug and bad-ass about it. When a wasp zooms in, I let it wear itself out a little with its hissy fits of bashing into lights and crashing into windows. I wait for it to land. Then I calmly place a cup over it, slide a piece of cardboard under it, walk it outside, and liberate it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

But when the intruder is a bird, that calls for a different tactic–one that eludes me. In the past it’s usually just been quite literally a hit or miss thing (with the bird hitting stuff and me missing the bird) until the bird accidentally escapes through the open door.

There must be a better way. But it’s not coming to me as I plot with my daughter about how to solve this thing.

We helplessly, foolishly try to communicate with this bird. We point to the door. No comprende. We walk toward the door with an exaggerated stride, inviting the bird to follow. It does not. We appeal to it in words: “Bird! Over here!” Not surprisingly, this also has no effect; the bird continues to flit randomly from edge to ledge to tip to top, occasionally in the direction or vicinity of the door but never through it.

I get a broom.

My plan with the broom is nebulous so far. I’m not going to swing it at the bird and panic it to death. But maybe I can block the bird from flying away from the door by brandishing this broom at a strategic angle in a strategic spot? As I grasp the handle and hold it aloft, lo and behold, the bird swoops over and alights on the bristles. All I have to do is march the bird outside as it surfs the broom! But the moment I move, the bird startles and flutters off. Drat.

Think. THINK! I’m a lifelong student of animal behavior. How can I commandeer this bird’s natural behavior to get it out of my house to freedom–and fast, before it poops all over my rug? What has it consistently, repeatedly been doing the whole time I’ve been effetely following it around trying bird-brained ways to save it? It’s been looking for perches.

What if I could entice the bird to perch on something that lies beyond the door?

Carolina_Wren_(1)
By Manjith Kainickara (Flickr: Carolina Wren) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I step outside and out of view, holding the broom horizontally about chest height in the doorway. The bird spies this new perch. It is an excellent perch, if I may say so. The bird agrees! It flaps over from across the room and lands on the broom. It seems to instantaneously recognize the sensations of the outdoors. It takes flight and disappears. I feel relieved and a little bit self-congratulatory.

Will this work next time? Because there will be a next time. Because I like the door open so I can hear the natural world out there. And when the natural world pays me an intimate visit? Well, as you may have heard, I like animals underfoot.

my feet on deck
My deck.

Are YOU My Mother?

pet duck
from CBS Evening News

A couple days ago CBS Evening News aired the story of a little girl who plays mom to a pet duck. The duck lives in her house (wearing a custom-made duck diaper), sleeps in her bed, and follows her wherever she goes–whether it’s to the pond at the park or trick-or-treating or a sleepover party. It’s the story of a beautiful friendship, and a heartwarming illustration of an avian instinct called filial imprinting. (Watch the video at the bottom!)

P1020500To be precise, we’re not talking about all birds–just precocial, nidifugous (“nest-fleeing”) birds. These are fancy terms for birds that were born ready: fully feathered, able to bust out of the nest at the first opportunity. The most common examples are waterfowl–ducks, geese and the like. Contrast this with our stock mental image of bare-fleshed, open-beaked nestlings waiting helplessly for mama bird to deposit regurgitated worms into their mouths. Nidifugous birds would call them candy-asses.

So precocial, nidifugous birds have this natural drive to venture out. But if they didn’t have a mechanism that impelled them to follow a leader, they might waddle off in all directions, including into the hungry jaws of their predators–turtles, raccoons, foxes, big fish, and the list goes on. In these species’ distant evolutionary past, such mavericks and heedless wanderers were weeded out; they bumbled into danger and didn’t live to reproduce. Those that played it safe by velcro-ing themselves to mom were more likely to survive to adulthood, and produce offspring that shared their mother-following tendencies.

dog-with-ducklingsOver time, filial imprinting–the instinct to attach to their mother and follow her everywhere–became deeply ingrained in nidifugous birds. This survival imperative is so strong that, if their biological mother is absent at the time imprinting would naturally occur, chicks will imprint on the first moving object they see. Konrad Lorenz, one of the most influential animal behavior scholars in history, identified this phenomenon and then manipulated it to amusing (and enlightening) effect. He found he could get chicks to imprint on him, his boots, other animals, and even a box traveling atop a model train. In each case the birds toddled after these surrogate “imprintees” as devotedly as they’d’ve trailed their own mother.

 

fly away home

Manipulating the process of filial imprinting hasn’t just been done for scientific discovery, or laughs. It’s also been an effective tool in wildlife conservation. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was attempting to establish a second migrating population of endangered whooping cranes, they induced chicks to imprint on an ultralight plane, and then had them fly behind the plane to their designated wintering grounds. Having learned the route this way, the cranes returned to their breeding grounds unassisted. If you’ve seen the movie “Fly Away Home”, based on a true story, this approach will sound delightfully familiar.
baby bird and cow

A whimsical look at imprinting can be found within the pages of a favorite childhood classic, Are You My Mother? A baby bird hatches while his mom is off searching for food. Finding himself alone, he naively strikes out on quest to find her. But he doesn’t know what she looks like; he hasn’t imprinted on her yet. To him, it’s equally plausible that a cow, an airplane, and a snorting piece of heavy construction equipment might answer affirmatively to his pleading question, “Are you my mother?” It’s probably a good thing all those non-mother entities were sitting still; if they’d sprung into motion, he’d probably have followed. Then the baby bird might’ve ended up imprinting on, say, the cat. And the story would’ve had a far different ending indeed.

 

 

Crows Bring Bling-Bling!

Admittedly, I’m departing a bit from my pets theme. Though I’m sure there are people out there who have pet crows, what prompted me to go down this road was a BBC article about suburban crows who, although wild, have a cozy connection with humans. I shared this on Animals Underfoot’s Facebook Page (which I’ve been too shy to promote and therefore no one knows about it yet, as evidenced by its paltry number of Likes). I’m reposting it here without much commentary, but I’m gearing up to write some stuff on crows in the next few days. Till then, visit the FB page, or click on the link in the embedded FB post below, or go directly to BBC.com to read this whimsical tale of a little girl who has a curious barter system going with some crows she feeds in her Seattle, Washington backyard.