How Do Birds Know?
Q: How do birds (or animals in general) know what is good for them to eat, and conversely? – Ed Bolt
A: I watched newly fledged American Dippers observe an adult that was feeding on the bottom of a rushing stream. The young observed and contemplated from rocks whether to submerge to look for prey. It appeared that they thought the adult was nuts. They did not want to enter the rushing water even near the stream edge where the current was not as swift. They made hesitant motion to enter the water but paused. They had previously received food the parent retrieved and had been fed. Now the parent was not satisfying their hunger. It was necessary to make the reluctant dive or go hungry. They had the physical body parts and basic instinct but it also required will and learned practice to survive.
There are two major aspects regarding food selection for birds. One is instinct and the other learned behavior. It is my opinion that we have often minimized their learning capacity. There was a time when people thought that most animals operated on instinct only like a programmed machine. That idea has been disproved with scientific inquiry repeatedly. With insects and invertebrates an instinct programmed behavior is more dominate but even with those animals, I think they have greater capacity for deliberate choice than is thought. That is another story.
Birds spend time following parents and mimicking feeding behavior. Not only do they observe what the parent is eating but they also observe how to acquire the selected item. They have instinctual behaviors that are modified and honed by learned practice. They have structural adaptations that work best for specific uses. One would not see a Great Blue Heron clinging to the side of a tree like a Red-breasted Nuthatch looking for prey in bark crevices from a half inch away. Conversely the Nuthatch’s sharp pointed beak and short legs would not be effective for wading and spearing prey in water.
Bad experiences like eating a Monarch butterfly is remembered and avoided. The aposematic coloration of prey aids birds in recognizing things that are distasteful and should be avoided.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.