Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Sparrow's feeding trick shows its ingenuity

STACEY COLE July 19. 2013 8:36PM

Under the subject of "bird behavior" one of our Twin Mountain readers told of an experience he had that was new.

The June 17 letter began: "Recently I witnessed some interesting bird behavior that I wonder if any of your readers or you, have also observed."

(Personally, I have not, nor do I recall any other reader writing about a similar encounter.)

The Twin Mountain reader continued: "I was in Conway with my wife and we had just entered our vehicle parked in a busy store parking lot. I glanced down to the front of two vehicles that were parked next to us. I noticed a sparrow feeding a bug to probably its chick which was almost the same size as its mother. Now at first I was concerned because the birds were between two parked vehicles that were facing each other in this busy lot. There were no obvious trees nearby and I wondered where the birds had come from. I feared for them as these cars could be moved by their owners at any time when they also came out of the store.

"I then observed the mother sparrow dart into one of the parked cars' grille. I thought, oh no, I can't believe this bird's nest is in the grille of the car. But shortly, the sparrow emerged from the grille with a big bug and hopped down to once again feed its chick. The sparrow did this again. Each time the chick eagerly opened its mouth for a crushed bug. Then the sparrow flew into the opposite car's grille, obviously searching for another bug. I thought how ingenious. The sparrow had learned that the front grilles of these cars contain a readily accessible food supply for her and her chick. I soon observed both mother and chick fly away, and no longer feared for their safety. I marvelled at the adaptability of this bird and wondered will the chick adopt this method of gathering its food supply and in turn pass this on to future generations of sparrows?"

Our reader has asked a most interesting question. It is believed by ornithologists that bird behavior is composed of two types, instinctive and learned or reasoned behavior.

According to "Fundamentals of Ornithology," written by Josselyn Van Dine and Andrew J. Berger: "... instincts are inherited ... instinctive behavior is evoked by complex environmental situations particularly through visual and auditory stimuli."

Birds and their actions have evolved over the years and there are some who believe that as birds have evolved, one or more of their "learned or reasoned reactions" to certain stimuli have now become "instinctive." If that were so, in the case of this "Conway sparrow," future young of that particular mother might instinctively behave as did its parent. As I am not trained in this field, I must leave the answer for others to decide. Readers?

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A long-time Washington, N.H., reader wrote on June 23: "Do you hear a lot of stories about wild birds becoming attached to human beings?

"We have a pair of robins that come back every year to nest in our garage roof overhang. It appears that they have two chicks this year. In previous years, I have offered them worms that we had purchased at our general store. They would not touch them. This year, I offered them grape jelly because it was mentioned in one of your recent columns. No luck with that!

"Back to my question. Most mornings, when I walk down our driveway, it appears that one of the robins will be waiting for me. He will keep hopping down the driveway about ten to fifteen feet in front of me until I reach the Union Leader box and then fly away. At times, when I am working in the yard, one of the pair will perch quite close and watch. Is this normal behavior or are they trying to be friendly?"

The American robin might well be the winner in a bird popularity contest as it is one of the first birds that children learn about. The robin may also be the friendliest of birds when it comes to building its nest. As our reader noted, "his" robin nested beneath his garage roof overhang, thus showing it had found that location safe for several years.

Although robins are wary of humans, their fear is tempered by their trusting behavior. I well remember watching how close robins would be to Gramp Cole when he was working in his garden.

This was especially evident when he was hoeing small weeds. Gramp always hoed backwards so that he left no tracks when he was done. While hoeing, a robin would work the soil as close to the hoe as it could, anticipating the exposure of an earth worm.

Other bird species exhibiting similar behavior include the phoebe, which nests above regularly used doorways; house finches, which nest in hanging flower pots on open porches; and chipping sparrows, which nest in shrubbery planted close to a dwelling.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

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