How Birds Learn to Identify Threats

Mobbing adults provide more than just protection for young birds.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

When an eagle or hawk flies overhead, a flock of crows may fly up to meet it, dive-bombing the predator and giving it a noisy escort out of town. An Eastern Kingbird will actually clamp its feet onto the back of a much larger hawk to send it packing. Birds of different species will even team up to mob the big predators. But how do they know which big birds to chase off and which to ignore? And how do they know to ignore birds like vultures that, to us, look so much like hawks or eagles overhead?

Scientists think birds owe this fine-tuned ability to identify threats to both instinct and learning. Experiments suggest that young birds may be genetically wired to avoid risks. But they need to watch experienced birds in action to refine their know-how. By watching their parents in the act of mobbing, youngsters gain critical knowledge that may save their own skin.

So when a mobbing flock of crows teams up on an eagle, they’re not only drawing attention and chasing off a potential danger. They may also be giving young crows an important lesson — in bird identification.
For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein.

Support for BirdNote comes from Songbird Coffee. Offering bird-friendly, organic shade-grown coffee for holiday giving. More at BirdNote.org/Songbird.

Producer: John Kessler

Managing Producer: Jason Saul

Associate Producer: Ellen Blackstone

Written by Bob Sundstrom

Narrator: Michael Stein

Bird sounds provided by Xeno-Canto and The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by Lance A. M. Benner, James W Kimball, Keith Boardway and Dale A Zimmerman. 

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

© 2017 Tune In to Nature.org   November 2017  ID#       mob-03-2017-11-17    mob-03

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