Why Birds Do What They Do
May 17, 2020 2:09 PM   Subscribe

"In all this struggling to imagine, I encounter a certain irony: The more I know about birds, the more inaccessible their perceptual world seems to me." Jenny Odell reviews two books on bird behavior. [Previously: How to Do Nothing.]
posted by kaibutsu (18 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I know some people can't stand it, but I appreciate the 'birb' tag.
posted by Splunge at 3:05 PM on May 17, 2020 [12 favorites]

Starlings are assholes.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:03 PM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Starlings can be jerks, but they can also be funny. We once heard some starlings mocking robin calls. It was hilarious. Then some jays flew in and scattered them.
posted by ovvl at 4:50 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Starlings made it so I can’t hang suet cakes out for the songbirds anymore. Fuckers disappeared an entire cake in under three hours. It was like some enormous Hitchcockian swarm descended on my yard. I’m amazed they didn’t eat the cage the cake was in, too.

posted by Thorzdad at 5:07 PM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Often it's jays or squirrels disrupting bird feeders. One piece of advice that we heard was to set up multiple stations, but this might not always work..
posted by ovvl at 5:33 PM on May 17, 2020

I have an irrational affection for all birds. Birds, the calls of birds, their shapes in the sky, their habits, their beauty, I adore birds. Bluejays light up my life, the quirky little hummingbird who sits on the clothesline very near me, a tiny treasure. Ravens always about their business the best of birds.
posted by Oyéah at 7:59 PM on May 17, 2020 [16 favorites]

I regret that I can only give one favourite to your comment, Oyéah
Birds are the best!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:15 PM on May 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

That link of the greater ani having a discussion is something.

So many wonderful anecdotes just in that one article, like birds processing visual information faster than we do, so that our movies would look like a slideshow to them.

She articulates very well the wonder there is in slowing down and becoming more aware of the natural world, the joy there is in learning how complex different parts are, and of course, the necessity of understanding the intricate ways it is all connected.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:00 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

There’s a small point in the article where it states that veeries can predict hurricane seasons in advance. I was very interested in this and looked it up. This is based on a single dedicated bird watcher in Delaware who saw a variation in how many times and how late in the year veeries would lay eggs that seemed to correlate with the later intensity of the Atlantic hurricane season. Since these birds migrate to South America each fall, it would make sense that they would raise as many offspring as possible in years where the trip should be mild and fewer when it’s more dangerous. He made a prediction that was more accurate than the consensus meteorological predictions in 2018. His observations were interrupted so he didn’t have good data for 2019. I hope he continues to forecast and others try to replicate the data.
posted by Emmy Noether at 10:33 PM on May 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

If anyone has, like myself, become more interested in backyard birding during the pandemic, I'd like to point out the vast array of resources available on line from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. All About Birds is probably the best entry point, and includes a page with a number of terrific online courses. "Birds of the World" has a subscription fee, but it's a vast encyclopedia-like trove of scientific information on virtual every species of bird. eBird is a site you can use to track your own sightings, and they have an app called Merlin (Apple, Android) that makes it very easy to identify birds based on the answer to 5 questions.

OH, and I'm a big fan of the Audubon Society, although fair warning: once they have your contact information you'll be buried in fundraising requests for the rest of your damn life.
posted by Ipsifendus at 6:08 AM on May 18, 2020 [10 favorites]

This week in Michigan I saw a bird that was robin sized, black with white patches on the wings, and bright red armpits.

I saw a bird that was all dark grey, in the under brush. A cat bird I think?

We had a few cedar waxwings tearing about our bushes a few weeks ago. Amazing.

House finches, can we talk about house finches? You think it's a sparrow but NO BRIGHT RED HEAD!

Starlings: Invasive. But they also sing like a seagull! Clever birds.

Blue jays, I learned recently, don't only make a "FUCK YOU" noise, they also sound like a pump handle.

And cow birds sound like someone dropped a cup of water into pool.

Thanks for letting me talk about what I don't know about birds. I'm going to read these books now.
posted by rebent at 6:53 AM on May 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

rebent, your first bird was a rufous sided towhee. The ones in my yard sing all the time, and they aren't especially afraid of me. Your dark gray bird was indeed probably a catbird. I call them all Ralph because of their call, "raaaalph."

Love me some birds.
posted by corvikate at 7:45 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Starlings are invasive but we brought them to the US deliberately so I don't blame them.
posted by emjaybee at 8:27 AM on May 18, 2020

Starlings are assholes.

Starlings can be jerks

Starlings made it so I can’t hang suet cakes out for the songbirds anymore. Fuckers disappeared an entire cake in under three hours

You’d be even more annoyed if it were cassowaries.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:51 AM on May 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

Our local mated pair of cardinals have built a nest right outside my office window. Which wouldn't normally be a problem except that now I'm working from home, our younger cat is VERY EXCITED about it.
posted by telophase at 11:12 AM on May 18, 2020

The cat would be much more cautious in the face of a mated pair of cassowaries is all I’m saying.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:28 PM on May 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

Building on Ipsifendus' recommendations, I really love the Merlin app... It's very easy to narrow down a search, and it has easy access to example songs as well (which is, 90% of the time, what I'm trying to identify).
posted by kaibutsu at 3:06 PM on May 18, 2020

I have been working from home for ten weeks now, sitting at the dining room table while also supervising two kids. The best part about this is that I can see out into the side yard and have a National Geographic North American birds guide handy, so we've all been taking a healthy interest in our local bird population. We have a mated pair of cardinals nesting in a hedge, and at least two pairs of robins hanging around. Lots of starlings with their funny little yellow beaks running around. Two weeks ago we saw a whole flock of cedar waxwings for the first time, and they stripped all the berries off of our holly bush. A few days ago the kids and I were in the backyard and a bird we didn't recognize flitted right past us and then sat in the hedge calling and singing and trilling for a solid five minutes. We looked it up in the bird guide - a catbird! - and then confirmed by listening to calls online. We look for birds on our walks around the neighborhood and the kids are getting really good at identifying them by silhouette alone. It's been neat. I'm adding these books to my to-read list!
posted by SeedStitch at 7:58 AM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

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