My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Birdbrain?

Before I get to the photo that prompted this post, I have to post a good one to appear in the header of my blog, even though few people see the header.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

That photo is related to the next one, it shows a bird with food in its beak, as does this one.

Juvenile cedar waxwing with a wasp

Juvenile cedar waxwing with a wasp

Watching the young waxwing eat the wasp that it has in its beak brought all kinds of questions to my mind. But first, I have to show this photo of the waxwing to show that at least for as long as I watched it, the waxwing suffered no ill effects of eating a wasp.

Juvenile cedar waxwing

Juvenile cedar waxwing

I had watched the waxwing alternately bash the wasp against the branch, then hold it for a while, as birds often do with insects that they catch. I think that they engage in that behavior to kill the insect before they swallow it. However, you have to wonder if birds, at least waxwings, are immune to the stings of wasps, as far as I know, the stinger of a wasp is still able to inject the toxins it carries even after the insect is dead, at least once. The waxwing did swallow the wasp head first, but I’d think that there would still be the chance of the waxwing being stung internally once the wasp made it to the bird’s crop. Maybe it wasn’t a species of wasp that can sting, or it may have been a look-alike species of insect, and not a wasp at all, but that raises a bunch of other questions.

It would seem to me that a wasp stinging a bird internally, in the throat or the crop, would be at least extremely painful, if not fatal.

We think of the sting of a wasp as a defensive weapon, as we get stung when we get too close to a wasp’s nest, but the wasp’s stinger main use is to paralyze prey for the wasp’s young to feed on in their larval stage.

The throat and airway of a bird isn’t very big, and if they suffered the same swelling at the point of a wasp’s sting as we humans do, I would think that it would cut off the bird’s ability to breath. Even if there was no swelling, having toxins that paralyze at least a portion of a bird’s throat and/or airway can’t be healthy.

So, all of this got me to thinking, how do birds learn what’s safe to eat, and what isn’t. A young bird’s parent(s) can’t possibly show the young bird all the possible food sources that there are once the young birds leave the nest, if for no other reason than the parents are typically with the young birds in spring and early summer, but food sources change over the seasons. A case in point, berries. There may be some berries that are ripe before the young birds leave the nest, but so many more species of berries ripen long after many species of young birds are on their own.

Yellow-rumped warbler and poison ivy berrries

Yellow-rumped warbler and poison ivy berries

I watched the warbler eat a few of the poison ivy berries, but my photos weren’t very good, so I deleted them before the idea to do this post came to me. However, I have posted photos of birds eating poison ivy berries in the past. If a human consumed those berries, they’d end up hospitalized and possibly dead, but birds and some other critters don’t seem to be affected by the poison ivy at all.

So, my question is, how do birds, and all critters for that matter, know what’s safe to eat, and what isn’t. It’s said that birds don’t eat monarch butterflies…

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

 

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly

…because the monarchs taste bad to the birds. Does that mean that every young bird of every species that feeds on butterflies has to try a monarch at least once to learn that the monarchs leave a foul taste in the bird’s mouth?

What if the possible food item is poisonous, it doesn’t seem like we’d have any birds left at all if every bird that hatched tried every possible source of food at least once, until they ate one that killed it.

So, my question is, how do birds learn this stuff?

It can’t be by only learning from adults, for as I said earlier, many species of young birds are on their own before the seasons, and the food sources change.

That doesn’t apply to all species of birds, many of them stick together in small family flocks through at least the first winter, the waxwings do, so do most species in the corvid family, such as blue jays..

Blue jays

Blue jays

…and it isn’t just corvids, the chickadees also stick together in family flocks.

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

On the other side of the coin are species of birds that other than during mating season, are totally loners that will not tolerate any other birds of the same species being near them, great blue herons are the first to come to mind.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

With a face like this…

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

…what other bird would want to look at that? πŸ˜‰

What I’m getting at in my own round about way is how much of a bird’s behavior is learned from its parents, and how much of it is “hard-wired” in the bird’s brain when it hatches, what we call instinct?

That question doesn’t apply to just food, but also migration. You have some species that migrate south in huge flocks, but then there are the loners that make their way south completely on their own. Again, great blue herons come to mind first.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

 

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

However, even in species that normally migrate in flocks, there are usually a few individuals migrating on their own, as some juvenile red-winged blackbirds do.

Juvenile male red-winged blackbird

Juvenile male red-winged blackbird

The same question applies to nest-building, how do first time breeding birds know where and how to construct their nests?

You know, I should do a post of nothing but different critters that I’ve photographed with their food. Oh wait, I just did a post like that. πŸ˜‰

The thing is though, when I catch a bird eating…

American pipit

American pipit

 

American pipit

American pipit

…often times, the photos aren’t very good, even though I learn a great deal from them. I feel compelled to get good photos of the same species, whether they’re eating or not.

American pipit

American pipit

So to make up for the earlier photo of a yellow-rumped warbler that wasn’t very good, here’s three better ones.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

 

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

And to show you how they got their name, there’s this one.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

I’ve got some better photos of juvenile cedar waxwings to make up for the first ones in this post to make up for the poor quality of them, but I can’t find them right now. I’m so far behind in posting, can you believe that I haven’t posted these yet?

Tree frog

Tree frog

 

Tree frog

Tree frog

Or these?

Dew covered hanging spider web

Dew covered hanging spider web

 

Dew covered hanging spider web

Dew covered hanging spider web

I still have photos of flowers from late spring.

Lupine

Lupine

That’s okay, I’ll get to them one of these days. But, that’s hard to do when I’m shooting photos such as this one on Sunday evening.

Duck Lake at moonrise

Duck Lake at moonrise

Maybe if I keep getting photos like this one…

Duck Lake State Park entrance

Duck Lake State Park entrance

…the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will hire me as their official photographer, hint, hint. πŸ˜‰ I’d have to learn how to Photoshop the wires out of the image first though.

I’m getting off topic again, as I so often do. Which reminds me, after a week where my Internet connection would work well for half an hour a day, if I was lucky, I think that I finally have the problem sorted out, and it didn’t even cost me any money. I do have one problem that remains, I can’t create these posts using Safari, the browser that comes with an iMac, I’ve had to go to Google Chrome to create this post.

Now then, back to the birds, wait, I’d better throw in a couple warm and fuzzy subjects first.

Eastern chipmunk

Eastern chipmunk

 

Eastern chipmunk

Eastern chipmunk

 

Fox squirrel

Fox squirrel

Now I’ve lost my train of thought, what a bird-brain! Ah ha, that was my train of thought. Okay, so I’ve been going on at length about how birds learn, and another question is, if the young birds learn from their parents, how do the parents communicate with the young birds. Some of the more social birds, such as blue jays, mallards and Canadian geese…

Mallards and Canadian geese

Mallards and Canadian geese

 

Mallards and Canadian geese

Mallards and Canadian geese

…and other species of birds have a wide range of vocalizations, but most species only make one or two different types of calls.

Male northern cardinal

Male northern cardinal

 

Juvenile white-crowned sparrow

Juvenile white-crowned sparrow

 

Juvenile white-crowned sparrow

Juvenile white-crowned sparrow

It isn’t as if you see older birds perched on a branch with its young around it as the adult lectures the kids about all they have to know to survive. Going back to the waxwing eating what looked like a wasp to me, even if the parents could describe which species of insects were safe, so many of the species insects look so much alike, that descriptions alone wouldn’t be enough, and then there’s the question of how good a bird’s eyesight is, can they easily tell the difference between harmless insects that can be eaten, and dangerous ones to avoid. I’d have to answer yes to that last question, all birds seem to have much better eyesight than we humans have, it isn’t just eagles.

Adult bald eagle

Adult bald eagle

Other than the question of eyesight, I can’t answer any of the questions that I’ve asked in this post. In fact, one more question comes to mind. If most of what birds need to know is hard-wired into their brains at birth, then why isn’t the same true of humans? We have more brain capacity than birds do, there a lot more space available in our brains for basic survival skills to be hard-wired into our brains at birth, but humans are born totally helpless and with little or no knowledge passed on to us from past generations.

Oh well, so many questions that will probably never be answered, so I’ll throw in a few more photos to finish this post off.

Juvenile American robin

Juvenile American robin

 

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

 

Male house finch

Male house finch

 

Male house finch

Male house finch

 

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

 

Turkey

Turkey

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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38 responses

  1. Gorgeous and fascinating photo album, loved the monarch shots, and found the bit about the wasp quite interesting.

    October 26, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    • Thank you very much Charlie! I sure wouldn’t want to swallow a wasp in any way.

      October 26, 2015 at 3:33 pm

  2. Delightful post! By the way, birds don’t eat Monarch butterflies, but they do eat Monarch catepillars.

    October 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    • Thank you very much! I didn’t know that about birds, monarchs, and the caterpillars, I thought that it was something in the milkweeds that the caterpillars eat that caused the butterflies to taste bad also.

      October 27, 2015 at 3:46 am

  3. Really wonderful photos, and interesting thoughts too.

    October 26, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    • Thank you very much Jet!

      October 27, 2015 at 3:47 am

  4. I have a thousand more questions for you when you have answered these ones. I loved the moonrise shot. Good luck with photoshopping the wires. It can be quite tedious if you want to do it really neatly.

    October 26, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    • Thank you very Much Tom! Before I can start the tedious task of Photoshopping the wires out of the photo, I have the tedious task of saving money for the items that I want more than I want Photoshop right now. πŸ˜‰

      October 27, 2015 at 3:49 am

      • Difficult choices.

        October 27, 2015 at 7:09 pm

  5. I read your remarks about your header and had a bit of a click round. It looks good. Reading blogs in the reader often doesn’t show them at their best I realise.

    October 26, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    • Thanks again Tom, I appreciate you taking the time to have a look!

      October 27, 2015 at 3:52 am

  6. If you ever find the answers to any of those questions I hope you’ll let me know!

    Everyone seems to have shots of birds eating poison ivy berries all of the sudden. Yours is the third one I’ve seen. And I’m working on a post full of what birds and animals eat.

    I like the sleepy tree frog and that hanging web is really unusual. I think my favorite is the moonrise though. I’m surprised you were able to keep the trees and river so well exposed!

    October 26, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I know that I’ve posted photos of birds eating poison ivy berries in previous years, you were the one that identified the berries as I didn’t know what they were.

      I have a few ideas, one, not even all humans are allergic to poison ivy, so it wouldn’t be surprising that other types of critters wouldn’t be affected by it. As to the wasp, if it was, it could be as the birds hold the wasps as they do, that the wasps empty their stingers on the tree branches and the bird’s bill before the wasp dies as its way of trying to fight back. Still, if a bird was at all affected by a sting from a wasp, it would be a risky meal.

      The moonrise photo is a HDR, but I did miss the exposure a little. I thought about that tonight, I should have used the birding set-up to get an exposure reading on just the moon, then used that as the starting point with the other camera and wide-angle lens for the images used to create the HDR image. That way, you would have been able to see the man in the moon.

      October 27, 2015 at 4:08 am

  7. Really interesting questions! I read a book called ‘The Wisdom of Birds’ by Tim Birkhead a few years ago which attempted to answer some of those questions. There is also a TED talk by him on-line which is very amusing. I heard someone talk about birds eating stinging insects and they suggested that when they bash the insect to kill it they also manage to nip off the sting as well. I also was listening to a programme just a week ago which talked about blue tits. Their chicks hatch out at the same time as their preferred caterpillar food also hatches out. For the first few days they are able to feed the chicks with the caterpillars whole. After a week or so, the caterpillars have eaten a lot of leaves that contain a chemical which would prove fatal to the baby blue tit so the parents then know that they have to disembowel the caterpillar before feeding it to their young!
    You have posted so many brilliant shots here! I love that black-capped chickadee! The moonrise, the fall colour, the tree frog, the male house finch with his head on one side – all wonderful!

    October 26, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! It’s great to have wonderful readers such as yourself that can answer some of those questions. Now that I have full time Internet access at full speed again, I’ll have to see if I can find that video you mentioned. Quite a few animals have many interesting skills to get around the defenses that plants and other animals have to try to save themselves, nature never ceases to amaze me.

      October 27, 2015 at 4:14 am

      • Here is the link to the talk
        http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_birkhead_the_wisdom_of_birds
        It doesn’t necessarily answer the questions you asked but it’s still good fun. His book is good though!

        October 27, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      • Thanks for the link, his presentation was a hoot!

        October 28, 2015 at 11:25 am

      • πŸ™‚

        October 28, 2015 at 6:34 pm

  8. Beautiful pictures!

    October 26, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    • Thank you Wendy!

      October 27, 2015 at 4:14 am

  9. Which begs the question “why don’t I get to see the header”? That bald eagle looks a bit scruffy. Molting?

    October 27, 2015 at 12:36 am

    • Thank you Gunta! If you read my blog in a reader, or if you follow a link in an email to just my most recent post, then the header with the larger photo I put in the header doesn’t show up. You have to land directly on http://www.quietsolopursuits.wordpress.com to see the header. It was a windy day when I shot the photo of the eagle, and it was facing the wrong way.

      October 27, 2015 at 4:18 am

      • Oh my…. I’ve been missing out on that gorgeous slideshow you have in the header all this time since I click on the link in the email notice when you post. But then it did take quite a while to load. Time is so often in short supply around here.

        BTW did I mention that I totally love the moonrise shot? Shows great potential for your move to landscapes.

        October 27, 2015 at 4:17 pm

      • Thanks again! I know that the slideshow takes a while to load, and that the photos also appear in the blog posts, but still, I like having some of my better photos in the larger format.

        October 28, 2015 at 11:25 am

  10. Hi Jerry,
    Thanks for giving me some extra smiles with this post. When I saw the title “Bird Brain” I wondered if it would be a post about me as that’s what I tend to be like these days. And then there was a shot of me – that funny great blue heron face is me in the morning. πŸ™‚
    Seriously, I really enjoyed your curiosity in this post. You posed questions that have come to my mind often. I think that’s one of the things I love about the natural world – much of it is still a huge mystery, no matter how much we think we’ve discovered through research and no matter how much we may theorise. I love the wonder of it. The amazing design of it all. A beautiful, interesting and educational collection of shots. Also, I’ve never seen a tree frog like that here! πŸ™‚

    October 27, 2015 at 5:41 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! I read an article a few years ago on the subject of how much knowledge citizen scientists are adding to the overall knowledge base through the photographs that the non-scientists among us are capturing. Sometimes those photos contradict what the experts “know”, other times they show behaviors that the experts had no idea that the critters in the photos engaged in. There is still so much to be learned, I’d like to add at least a minute fraction to the sum so far.

      October 27, 2015 at 11:33 am

  11. Great food for thought, Jerry (no pun intended).

    Thanks for the tree frog photo – I’ve never seen one before. He’s not the best-looking guy in the pond, or tree, is he? I love hearing them.

    Looking closely at your shot of the black-capped chickadee, it looks almost like he has eyelashes below his eye. Interesting.

    At our last campsite at Ohiopyle SP, we were sitting around drinking coffee in the morning. There was a huge commotion and rustling in the tree/brush that leaned right up into our window. Turns out there were about 50 cedar waxwings pulling berries off the vines. About two minutes later, they were gone. What a fun way to start the day.

    Like all your readers’ comments about food. Lots to think about.

    October 27, 2015 at 7:57 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I think that the tree frogs are cute, they appear to be smiling, but that’s me. I blew-up some of the photos of chickadees that I shot the same day as the one in this post, and you’re right, they do have tufts of tiny feathers below their eyes that appear to be eyelashes, good eyes! Any day with a flock of waxwings in it is a good day. πŸ™‚

      October 27, 2015 at 11:38 am

  12. It’s fascinating to contemplate how animal brains work and process sensory input. Just think about the sophistication of flight, be it in birds or insects such as dragonflies.

    October 27, 2015 at 8:38 am

    • Thank you very much Bob! You’re right about flight, but I can understand how birds fly, the way that their feathers operate, the insects that have me stumped are butterflies. How do they fly with solid broad wings?

      October 27, 2015 at 11:28 am

  13. Chipmunks, squirrels, lovely lake views, what more could I want. You are an ace photographer.

    October 27, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    • Thank you very much Susan! I try for a little of everything to keep the great people who read my blog happy.

      October 27, 2015 at 3:23 pm

  14. Wonderful pictures and some very interesting questions that I have often asked myself. If you ever find any of the answers I hope you’ll post them here.

    October 28, 2015 at 8:43 am

    • Thank you very much Sue! Trust me, I’ll post the answers if I am able to learn them.

      October 28, 2015 at 11:26 am

  15. A great collection of photos, Jerry. It is interesting how animals learn what to eat and what to leave alone.

    I love the tree frog photos. We have a lot of them here, and I often find them hiding in flower pots in summer as the soil is damp and they are protected. The frog in the second one looks as if he is smiling for the camera.

    October 29, 2015 at 12:58 am

    • Thank you very much Lavinia! We have lots of tree frogs around here too, but I seldom see them, but when I do, they all look like they are smiling.

      October 29, 2015 at 3:39 am

  16. Lovely birds, esp the waterfowl, of course! As to the citizen science discussion… my friend & I were just discussing this yesterday and, after three & a half years of raising ducks, I have come to the conclusion that some part of their knowledge is genetic. Our three young ducks instantly recognized the shape of a raptor and cringe at the sight of anything even slightly resembling one, such as a plane at 20K feet. The only parent they have had is me so not much parenting, right? The older ducks have, of course, had direct encounters with hawks but I can’t imagine they discussed it with the ducklings. Of course, they move as a flock but any of them individually will react to the shape of flying objects with what can only be described as innate (protective) behavior. Thanks for letting me contribute to the body of avian literature. πŸ™‚

    October 30, 2015 at 11:01 am

    • Thank you very much Lori! You may be surprised at what the older ducks have told the young ones. There was a study released recently, not only can crows recognize individual people, they are able to describe the ones that posed a threat to them to other crows, well enough so that the other crows could recognize the people who posed a threat. They did the study by wearing masks and capturing crows, it was fascinating, I wish that I had saved the link to the article I read. But, I think that you’re correct, the young ducks know instinctively the shapes that pose a threat to them.

      October 30, 2015 at 11:32 am