Archive for June 28th, 2008

The other night, I was lying on the futon when I noticed our parrots going absolutely rigid. Unlike their usual habit, when they see a crow or a seagull, they were not calling out. They were making small, disturbed chirps, and their feathers were tight against their bodies – a sure sign of agitation.

Looking outside, I couldn’t see any reason for their disturbance at first. Then I noticed crows and smaller birds streaking low into the trees, and I realized a predator must be in the neighborhood. Sure enough, after a moment, I spotted a bald eagle perched atop tree about a hundred meters from the window.

Most of what I could see with my unaided eyes was a black silhouette, since it was less than twenty minutes before sunset. Still, there was no mistaking what I was seeing. Although I had nothing I could compare the silhouette with to be sure of its size, the general outline was nothing like the crows that usually sit on that perch. It was longer and thinner. It didn’t move like a crow, either. It kept peering this way and that with a jerk of the head that was most uncrow-like, and fanning and unfanning its tail.

Nor could the avian reactions, both outside or in leave me with any doubt that I was seeing a predator. Outside, I could see more silhouettes streaking low across the sky behind the eagle towards shelter. Nearby, the usual sounds as the birds go to roost were completely missing from the night. Inside, our parrots were tense and straining forward to keep an eye on the visitor, ignoring everything else.

What interested me about the parrots’ reaction was that they had no trouble recognizing a predator when they saw one. Of our four parrots, at least one was taken from the wild as a baby, and one was born in our living room, and neither of them could have had any personal experience of raptors, yet both reacted exactly the same as the other two. Of course, nanday conures are a flock species, and alarms and greetings spread quickly, even between parrots who don’t like each other. Yet it seems clear that, at some instinctual level, they knew a predator when they saw one.

At the same time, the two on the futon were not so alarmed that they panicked. On some level, they seemed to know that they were far enough away not to be a main target. Possibly, too, they were aware of the window between them and the eagle; one of the first bits of training we do with all our birds is introduce them to the window, so that they don’t fly into it by accident. Instead of backing slowly away, as I half-expected, they not only stayed where they were, but actually moved forward a bit, craning, to get a better view. In other words, they were on alert, but seemed aware that they were safe. Perhaps what I was seeing was instinct and intelligence fighting for control.

After about five minutes, the eagle stirred abruptly, seeming to fall rather than fly from its perch. I soon found out why: a half dozen crows were charging it. A predator can make short work of a single crow, but a determined flock of crows outhinks and outguns it, and this eagle was obviously experienced enough not to challenge its attackers. Now its turn had come to seek shelter, and the last I saw, it was flapping furiously, trying to outdistance the crows and not having much luck.

The crows, no doubt, had a strong incentive. This past ten days or so, the first of this year’s baby crows have been taking their first flying lessons, leaving many of them stranded permanently or temporarily on the ground, or on remote perches without being quite sure how to get back to the nest. I had been dive-bombed several times myself because of my curiosity, and no doubt the eagle, for whom the crow fledglings provide an easy meal, had raised the ire of the adults.

Given the timing, you can almost imagine the adult crows acting like a fighter squadron, scrambling to get a response into the air as soon as possible to confront the danger. When you consider crows’ intelligence and social organization, that metaphor might even be a reasonably literal description of what happened.

With the eagle gone, our parrots relaxed almost instantly – another sign, I suppose, that they know exactly what a predator is. As for me, I was left with both a gut-level awareness of the eagle as predator and our parrots as prey species that I had never had before. And, for all my fascination with observing the reactions, I found that I was relaxing too, along with the rest of my flock.

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