When it comes to defending their territory, nests or young, birds only have a couple of options. Attack or create a distraction. For the majority of songbirds attacking might fend off the predator, but it’s just as likely to get them killed and do their babies no good whatsoever. Still there are plenty of birds that will fearlessly go after their enemies, be it mammal or another bird.
First case in point; Red-winged Blackbirds. We have some who come to our bird feeders in search of sunflower bird seed. Typically, these inhabitants of cattail marshes and associated wetlands are very territorial and not afraid to let others know it. They will use their voice to loudly proclaim their space, while (the male) also raising
the red/orange/yellow shoulder feathers (‘epaulets’) to make themselves more conspicuous. If this doesn’t work they will chase the intruder out of their territory. In some cases though, the intruder is not even aware that they have crossed the threshold.
This happened to my best friend in downtown Chicago, of all places. Not a typical place to be bird watching. We were on the Navy Pier with our granddaughters, who were trying to figure out which rides they wanted to go on. Karen left to find the restrooms and as she approached two buildings with some small trees on either side, a redwing appeared out of nowhere and swooped down, striking her on the back of her head. I was witness to all this, but too far away to call out a warning. Karen had no idea what had just happened until she turned and saw the angry bird flying around. She reached back to check her head and then hurried to her destination. She was not hurt in any way, just shocked. I can admit now that I laughed as I watched the episode unfold.
I’m sure you’ve seen these blackbirds doing the same sort of maneuver when crows have come too close to their nests or territories. The crows are twice as big as the redwings, but that doesn’t stop these daring songbirds. Right now the parents are fledging their young and crows are known nest robbers. If they get too close for comfort, you will see a crow flying with one or more redwing’s pursuing it from above or behind and repeatedly dive bombing the back of the larger bird. They are like pesky flies to the crows, but the smaller birds are the victors, at least temporarily.
I have watched and experienced similar dive bombing techniques among the even smaller Tree Swallows. These birds are fast flyers and if they perceive a threat near their nest they go into overdrive and swoop as close to the head of the intruder as possible, making snapping noises with their beaks as they come in close. It is disconcerting and the message is clearly delivered.
In the realm of distraction, the bird most people are likely to encounter is the Killdeer. This bird is in the plover
family and it builds its nest (if you can call it that) on the ground. Generally it is just a scrape of dirt or gravel where the mottled, absolutely camouflaged eggs are laid. There is nothing to protect this nest and its inhabitants from predators or accidental encounters. So when the parent bird feels something or someone is too close to the nest it will quickly run or fly away, crying loudly. If that initial action doesn’t do the trick, the Killdeer will do the ‘broken wing’ act.
This is when they drop one or both wings down to the ground and appear to be in great distress. Any hungry predator is bound to look at that bird and think, ‘easy pickings’. And that’s just what the adult wants. If they get close the bird just lifts up and flies further away.
There is one display that everyone who lives where Common Loons spend the summer should know. It is made by loons when they are distressed and feel their nest or young are in danger. It’s called the ‘penguin dance’ and is
extremely dramatic, which leads some people to do the wrong thing, by approaching even closer. The loons will rise up on their legs and with much splashing and flapping of wings appear to run on the water. If you see such a display, back off immediately. You are too close and could be endangering either the eggs or the chicks.
The majority of birds are what we would consider dedicated parents and they will defend their young, as we would ours. It is up to us to recognize and heed their warnings.
By Kate Crowley