Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 17, 2023

Bird brain

In my column "Close encounters of the bird kind," I mentioned that while I generally like birds, there are limits. Chickens are no problem, probably because I was around them growing up. Pigeons don't bother me as I can easily ward them off with sudden hand or foot movements.

But twice I've been present when a sea gull swooped down and snatched food, once from husband Art's plate and once from a friend's hand. That was a bit too close for me. Swallows dive bombing to keep me away from their nests make me uneasy as well. Maybe I never should have seen Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." At any rate, I'm inclined to let any of my feathered friends have their space and I'll find another.

However, my occasional aversion to some avian encounters doesn't mean I'm not curious about them. A couple of Christmases ago, I received the book, "What It's Like to Be a Bird," and I've referenced it several times. I love to spend time reading about and observing them.

Some terms associated with flocks of birds - a gaggle of geese, a covey of quail, or a band of jays - are familiar to me. But others aren't - an unkindness of ravens, a lamentation of swans, a murder of crows, or a confusion of guineas, to name a few. The book, "An Asylum of Loons," discusses collective nouns for birds, their meanings, and their history. A group of male terns is called a cotillion because they court their partners through elaborate displays, resembling the showy dances at a cotillion ball.

Another example is a huddle of penguins. Emperor penguins huddle together to conserve heat in the frigid Antarctic. The birds on the inside actually get too warm and have to switch positions with those on the outside.

English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400) was probably the first to use parliament for a group of owls in his poem, "Parlement of Foules," depicting the birds as noisy and wise, albeit a bit pompous.

According to countrylife.co.uk, some birds are named for personality traits people have assigned to them. Nouns for collective groups of crows - murder, mob and horde - probably come from medieval peasants' fears that the birds were sent by the devil or were witches in disguise.

Probably the most amusing group of birds I've ever seen is a confusion of guinea fowl. Their group name seems appropriate, although there appears to be some method to their confusion. Art's daughter Karen originally adopted guineas to control the tick population on their land outside Kansas City. Her descriptions of their behavior make me laugh:

... they are a never ending source of amusement the way they run around and the stupid stuff they do. They can fly. Like really fly. Not like chickens. They are seasonal egg layers that refuse to lay in a coop. They make their nest on the ground and more than one bird will put eggs in the nest. Only one bird will sit on the nest and raise the young. The little ones are called keets. They eat amazing amounts of bugs, but do not scratch up gardens or eat your plants. If they are properly trained, they will roost in the coop at night. Otherwise they roost in trees. They are afraid of the dark.

They prefer to run instead of fly. And they run everywhere. They rarely walk. ...

She said guineas are extremely good at warding off predators.

... The way they scare off predators is to come at them from all directions making a lot of noise. They form a semicircle and approach the animal all the while yelling at it. Any bird within hearing runs to join the group. They have run off large dogs and foxes. Cats give them wide berth. ...

... They will run off snakes and peck at them. They can kill small rodents too. ... Death is usually by hawk or owl, but can be by fox or coyote. Or cars. They treat cars like geese. They just keep on doing their thing.

I love to watch birds do their thing. I'm especially intrigued by members of the corvid family - crows, ravens, jays, and magpies. According to scientific studies, they are some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. They have been observed using tools, as well as mimicking sounds they hear, remembering people's faces, and bringing "gifts" to those who feed them.

When we were in France, I witnessed a couple of magpies distracting a cat that was close to their nest. They kept the cat's attention by hopping close and then hopping away when they sensed he was about to pounce. The cat eventually got bored or frustrated and left.

We've all seen birds, particularly geese, flying in formation when they migrate. One bird takes the lead, reducing drag for those following. When it becomes tired, it will rotate back and another bird will take the lead.

Being in large groups also offers foraging benefits. Flocks are usually individuals from the same species, but mixed groups are also common. In a park in Trier, Germany, we saw geese, ducks and pigeons scrounging for treats left by humans. And during our recent visit to Wisconsin, large groups of ducks and geese fed together in lakes and along the shores.

People often use the term "bird brain" as a pejorative for those who are less intelligent. Nathan Emery, author of "Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence," says bird song - and the ability of some birds to mimic human speech - show high levels of intelligence. Birds can also do things that humans can't, such as find their way home after migrating thousands of miles or remembering where they hid food even after the landscape has been covered in snow.

Heck, I sometimes have trouble finding my car in a parking lot ... a bird brain would have served me well.

Top row (l-r): The two magpies have the cat's interest; he's getting tired of the cat-and-birds game; Karen's guinea fowl near their coop; a guinea fowl is unlikely to win a beauty contest. Bottom row (l-r): the current year's youngsters follow an adult turkey - a scene common in the Midwest; two pigeons appear to be socializing; a mixed flock of fowl gathers near a pool in Trier.

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