We don’t just look at birds—we watch them, and we watch them because they’re always doing things. The winners in our Audubon Photography Awards this year produced many fine portraits of avian splendor, but many of the entries also captured a splendid selection of action shots of birds living their lives. Birds are lovers and fighters, singers and dancers, hunters and players. See below for eleven glimpses into the fascinating lives of our feathered neighbors.
Sibling Revelry (above)
A baby Burrowing Owl grows up in an underground burrow with as many as a dozen brothers and sisters. When the youngsters come out above ground, they spend much of their time at play: running about and pouncing on dirt clods, bugs, twigs—or each other. Their antics are hilarious to watch, but they have a practical side, helping the young owls learn the skills they’ll need for hunting.
Feathers are wonderful structures but they need a lot of maintenance. A bird may spend up to several hours per day preening its feathers, using its bill to comb out dirt and arrange the outer vanes of the feathers into perfect alignment. And some feathers require more care than others. This Reddish Egret is preening the long decorative plumes that give the bird its finest look for the breeding season.
To survive, young Peregrine Falcons must learn to be supreme fliers. They practice their moves by following their parents around in the air. As the fledglings grow in strength, a parent Peregrine may catch a bird and then drop it, forcing the young to swoop down and catch it midair. Although it looks like intentional training, the adult may be dropping the prey simply to avoid getting mobbed by the rambunctious youngsters.
A Good Dust Off
Birds often bathe in water, of course, but they also take dust baths, even when water is available nearby. Plopping down in loose, powdery soil, fluttering furiously, they work the dust into their feathers and then shake it out again. Dusting may help to control lice or other parasites, or to remove fatty grease from the feathers. The habit is especially common among ground-dwellers like this Ruffed Grouse.
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Northern Gannets generally mate for life, but they take separate vacations, wandering south in the Atlantic during the fall and winter. Come spring, members of a pair meet at the spot that’s central to their relationship: their nest site on an island off eastern Canada. Their rendezvous is marked by rituals of bowing and posturing, often “fencing” gently with their big beaks.
One King to Rule Them All
The scientific name of the Eastern Kingbird is Tyrannus tyrannus, or king of kings, quite the title for a bird smaller than a robin. But this little dynamo attacks any larger species that ventures too close to the kingbird’s nest, following and harassing until the intruder leaves the territory, then returning to a jaunty treetop perch with triumphant sputtering cries. Not even the mighty Bald Eagle is immune to the kingbird’s wrath.
The World Is A Dance Floor
All of the world’s 15 species of cranes perform elaborate dances as part of their social interaction. One of the smallest members of the family, the Blue Crane of southern Africa, has a particularly graceful dance. Members of a courting pair may bow, stretch, flap their wings, and leap into the air with bugling cries, and the dance may go on for as much as four hours.
When a woodpecker begins digging a new nest hole in a tree, it doesn’t have to worry about disposing of chips and sawdust: The debris will naturally fall to the ground. Once the nest cavity is deepening, however, it takes an extra step to clear away the clutter. This male Red-bellied Woodpecker, working on a hole in a palm trunk, pauses to drop a beakful of wood chips out the door.
Come at Me, Bro
In the Sonoran Desert, the top of a cholla cactus makes a commanding perch, one worth defending. If a Curve-billed Thrasher is surveying the territory from atop a cholla, it won’t be challenged for the spot by lesser birds like wrens or sparrows. But it may have to yield when a big White-winged Dove swoops in. Competition for lofty perches is all accomplished by bluff and bluster, and the birds won’t actually come to blows.
Built to Filter
When an American Avocet is standing still, the up-curved tip of its bill seems merely an odd decorative touch. Actually this bill shape is purely practical, as we see when the avocet starts foraging. When this spindly shorebird leans forward with its head down, the outer part of the bill becomes a horizontal line. The avocet sweeps this bill tip back and forth at the surface of water or mud, filtering tiny prey from the ooze.
Belt It Out
Male songbirds sing for two main reasons: to warn other males to stay out of their breeding territory, and to attract (or communicate with) a female. Many warblers, like this Northern Parula, actually have different songs for these purposes. A male parula gives one song type repeatedly at dawn, when wandering males would be most likely to intrude. He sings the other song during the day to stay in touch with his mate.
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