My life is about living with nature – here you can live it with me!

Can birds learn?

Now you can officially accuse me of bring my nature studies into the office!! It started two summers ago when I placed a hummingbird feeder just outside my office window. Quickly these little green birdies started dazzling everyone by there charm and beauty. You never knew when someone was just outside my window taking pictures or video taping the 10 or so hummingbirds fighting for that perfect perch. Ultimately good things always come to an end and this happened when the hummingbirds decided to make their migration south for the winter. Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I found myself with a desire to bring nature back to the office again. Sunflower seeds were an excellent tool for inviting these birds back to my office and keeping me entertained. Birds like the Black-capped Chickadee, American Goldfinch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse and Dark Eyed Junco are now regular visitors of mine. But, who would have expected birds like the Pine Siskin, Downy Woodpecker or even the Purple Finch to make numerous occurrences in my office window! Last year I even had friends from Buffalo make the hour trip south for the “possibility” of seeing an Evening Grosbeaks in my office window!!

You wonder how these unusual visitors are able to learn where I have placed a small pile of sunflower seeds in an unusual location like a window frame on the 2nd floor? Well, those nosy chickadees arrived within the first day and probably were investigating the disappearance of the hummingbird feeders (they must have known that this was a bird friendly window). Other species started visiting the window after learning that somewhere these chickadees were getting sunflower seeds. The learning process didn’t stop here; believe me when I tell you it continues.

Towards the end of the season last year I started to hear some knocking sounds. I turned around and found this White-breasted Nuthatch doing something that I have never seen before.

White Breasted Nuthatch White Breasted Nuthatch 2

The nuthatch would grab a seed and bring it over to the edge of the window. Then it would place it between the metal frame and wooded base of the window and …..

White Breasted Nuthatch 3

put its full body into cracking open the seed!!

White Breasted Nuthatch 4 White Breasted Nuthatch 5

After a few hits the nuthatch would pull the seed out and continue the process all over again (or until the bird got sick of having my face 2 feet from the window watching)! If the seed fell out, the nuthatch would drop instantly down (see its position) to catch the seed in mid air!!

White Breasted Nuthatch 6 White Breasted Nuthatch 7

Now, I would call this very clever of this nuthatch to have figured out how to crack open these seeds. Quickly those nosy chickadees learned that this nuthatch would leave leftovers in the frame which were already shelled from the seed. Soon those curious chickadee were also giving the window thing a try.

Downy Woodpecker

This year for the first time the Downy Woodpeckers started visiting the window!! Not one but I have identified three different individuals coming to my window (how do I know three?? One female was banded by me, another female is bandless and there is a bandless male coming around)!!

Downy Woodpecker 1 Downy Woodpecker 2

As you probably expected, these Downy Woodpeckers have also learned how to crack open their seeds from their “birding” piers!! I can’t help but visualizing that these birds had to sit in a class room (taught by the ovenbird) on “how to crack open a seed in Tom’s window”!! So, learning is something done by not only humans but by birds also! I would love to hear how others have noticed birds learning!!

14 responses

  1. Heather (Ephemeron)

    They are very clever little things!! Looking out your window must be a lot more fun than watching television!

    9 January 2007 at 9:14 pm

  2. birds are such clever creatures. that is incredible! I can’t believe how diverse the population of birds in our neighborhood has increasingly become since we moved here. I think they have an inborn sense of where the bird-friendly folks are, leaving good eats out for them and their friends :o) they’re so fun to watch! the only time I’m not crazy about their innate smarts is when they snatch up larvae in our yard… that makes me mad!

    9 January 2007 at 9:20 pm

  3. @ Heather – since I only get NBC and CBS, it sure is more fun!
    @ Sarah – they do love feeding on the bugs! Thanks for visiting and will check out your blog!

    9 January 2007 at 9:37 pm

  4. Great action shots Mon@rch! Birds are so cool in what they do!

    9 January 2007 at 10:15 pm

  5. Didi

    They do learn.. they also know which bird to follow to get to the goodies. I have the White winged doves wait for endless hours until the House Sparrows get here and then push the House Sparrows from the feeder to eat themselves. Why wait for them ? Because if the House Sparrows are here they know is save. The grackle will absolutely never stand on any feeder .. but will pick anything from the ground and take it inmediately to the bird bath… water is the tenderizer to any meal . Any way.. I enjoy this blog 😉

    10 January 2007 at 12:19 am

  6. Acorn woodpeckers adapt this as a general feeding approach. If they are able to extract an acorn from the granary, or they have a green acorn, they will go to what is known as an anvil. Anvils are tops of posts, branches in trees, any place where they can wedge the seed in and then eat it from there. So if you spot a top of a post, and there’s an acorn woody there, chances are very high you will see more woodies there.

    Actually acorn woodpeckers are really smart (and/or evolution) . Their acorn hole has a compression-fit flange at the opening to help push them in and keep them in. Very clever.

    There’s a free downloadable paper on Acorn Woodies from the Auk (under monographs as I recall). Pretty cool read.

    Kindest regards as always

    10 January 2007 at 1:27 am

  7. Love it. I had a hummingbird feeder out my bedroom window for about 2 months last winter but it was a bad design and there was no way to keep the ants out so I took it down. I still see hummers flying into that area looking for it — got buzzed the other day when I was putting seed out. Guess I have to hit the store and get one that I can put out *and* keep ants out of. Birds definitely think and learn! And, Chickadees usually lead the way to the food here, too.

    10 January 2007 at 2:37 am

  8. That is remarkable—so not only do they learn, but they apparently have a bit of “culture” as well, huh?

    10 January 2007 at 3:43 am

  9. Amazing article! It’s very interesting how they adapt to different situations.

    10 January 2007 at 6:02 am

  10. @ NatureWoman – the sure are!
    @ Didi – how wonderful you have been able to observed all this from your feeder! Leave it to the Grackle to make a mess!
    @ Ashok – Acorn Woodpeckers are wonderful birds although I have never seen any in person! I have all of the AUKS from 1950 to present, so I will be sure to go check that out! Thanks for visiting and BTW: love your photography!
    @ Egret’s Nest – I have done the hummingbird feeder outside my bedroom also! Isn’t it amazing how early in the morning they wake? I can still remember the buzzzzz being my alarm clock!
    @ Darmok – thanks for visiting and we should also add class in feeding! Just yesterday I watched all the birds in my window freeze (no movement)! There was a predator in the area and they probably didn’t want the hawk to find my window!!
    @ Nuno Barreto – thanks and it was fun writing this! I have been thinking about writing this for a while now!

    10 January 2007 at 8:43 am

  11. I love those nuthatch pictures- standing on the tips of their toes, look like tripods!

    10 January 2007 at 9:39 am

  12. I’m so glad I visited your blog today. Your photos are awesome, especially seeing the birds in action. I’m sure they “watch and learn” to some degree…

    Thanks for this nice post.

    10 January 2007 at 11:51 am

  13. Randy

    Awesome. That’s pretty cool that you have such an up close and personal view of the birds. Very interesting observations…


    10 January 2007 at 6:44 pm

  14. @ Lynne – thanks and they are cute they way they stand! Guess it helps climbing upside down!
    @ Mary – thanks for visiting the site and such kind words!
    @ Randy – thanks and that is the only way to observe them, will try to observe them!

    11 January 2007 at 12:30 am

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