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ZOO-ology column: Bird body language has purpose

By By Judie Farnsworth
July 8, 2012 at 2:08 a.m.

A mockingbird flashing his wings.

A mockingbird runs, stops and mechanically moves its wings out and back. Why is it doing that?

A dove is half sitting, half laying looking rather goofy - has it been sampling fermented berries.

Birds exhibit some interesting behaviors.

A mockingbird's mechanical wing movements are called wing flashing and may have more than one explanation. It's believed to startle insects hiding in the grass, helping scare up a buggy dinner. It may also be a means of impressing a female or indicating dominance to another bird.

Another mockingbird behavior is called a border dance. Two mockers stand facing each other with heads high and tail up. One bird hop-hop-hops sideways, as if moving along a line (border). The opposite bird hops in the same direction. They're warning: Don't you dare set foot into my territory. This behavior may go on for a while and can end up in a tussle, or the birds may fly back to their established area content that they've made their point.

A bird may appear to be in a trance-like state, leaning to one side, mouth open and holding a wing out. Is it dying or drunk? It's most likely sunbathing. Spreading feathers in hot sun gets pesky feather mites to move around for easier cleaning. The bird may be regulating its body temperature, drying itself or just enjoying a sunbath. Vultures do this standing with wings spread in what is called a horaltic pose.

Why are gulls flying around inland areas?

They're scavengers and once were mostly coastal, but ever-growing inland populations tempt them with extra food sources. They often follow rivers and waterways.

Landfills offer a veritable feast. Because it seems they will eat almost anything; some refer to them as goats with wings. By the way, seagull is a misnomer, it's just gull.

If you see a group of birds (often chickadees) diving at a tree top and causing a ruckus, chances are there's an owl or hawk there. The behavior is called mobbing.

There's strength in numbers and although the predator might catch a smaller mobster, the chaos is usually sufficient to make leaving the preferred choice.

Mobbing also exposes the predator, foiling a surprise attack. Sometimes a smaller bird will singly harass a larger one to drive it out of a feeding or breeding territory. You may have seen one flying high after a hawk or vulture.

If a bird is constantly pecking or flying feet first at a window, it's not asking to come in. The bird is probably seeing its reflection and thinking it's another bird in its territory. Go outside and check. If there's a reflection, consider interrupting it. A few strips of painter's tape, hanging ribbons, soap streaks are all helpful. Go ahead - be creative; foam snowflakes in the winter, Halloween pumpkins, hearts. This also works well to reduce window hits from flying birds that see sky and clouds reflected, but not the glass.

Side mirrors on cars are often attacked. Cover the mirror (a plastic bag works) while the car isn't in use. Some birds are more territorial than others. Robins and cardinals are well known for this behavior.

The improved aviary is open at the Texas Zoo and includes feeding opportunities. Come visit and check out some of these and other bird behaviors.

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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