What Do Birds Know?
Encounters with a Red-winged Blackbird
It's hard to even imagine that nobody is at home in that tightly-wound little black bird.
When I go outside and round the corner of my house to pick a zinnia, a certain red-winged blackbird rises from the edge of my neighbor's pond and flies straight toward me. His brilliant red epaulets flash with each wing beat, as bright as the red lights on a police car in full chase.
Next to the zinnia patch stands a pole from which bird feeders hang. The blackbird lands on top of the pole and blasts me wth a shrill sound, like a crossing guard's whistle. I only meant to go out and pick a flower, but I know what the blackbird wants. I turn to the outdoor cabinet where I keep jars of birdseed locked away from midnight-raiding raccoons.
As soon as I start to work the latch on the cabinet, the red-wing drops to the stone patio, about six feet from me. He watches me and whistles stridently again. While I'm struggling to open a cross-threaded jar lid, the bird paces the patio, passing back and forth behind me. Every few seconds he lets out another whistle blast.
When at last I get my fist around the sunflower seeds and toss them onto the stones, the blackbird power-walks to the food. He picks up three or four seeds in his bill and swallows them. Then he wings off for the edge of the pond.
He could have gotten sunflower seeds out of one of the hanging feeders. The seeds are all alike, from the same 50-pound bag. I know he's capable of clinging to the feeders' wire mesh and plucking out the food — I've watched him do it countless times. But he seems to prefer to eat down on the stones. Maybe it's more comfortable to his toes. Maybe he feels he's getting the pick of the batch. It crosses my mind that he might even enjoy seeing if he can get me to open the cabinet.
I've attempted to win the trust of many birds at my feeders, over the years, but I've never tried to tame a blackbird.
Never have I stood motionless outside during the warm seasons, when the blackbirds are here, offering seeds on my outstretched hand. Not the way I work on chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers in winter. Eventually a chickadee or one of the others will on my hand and take a seed, but it seems as if I've simply worn off the edges of their caution by standing in one place like a big strange stone until they stopped noticing what I was.
This red-winged blackbird is different. He's the one who took the initiative. He figured out that I can deliver the goods, though I can't be counted on to do it every time I go outside. He also understands that he can do something (approach and whistle) that will get me to take an action he's interested in (open the cabinet and toss some seeds on the walk). He trained me!
I'm intrigued by what birds know and understand. It seems obvious that the blackbird reads my intentions, communicates his desire, and hopes I'll do something for him. It's hard to even imagine that nobody is at home in that tightly-wound little black bird.
Scientists are working hard to understand the degree to which birds reason, plan for the future, and comprehend someone else's mental activity. I'll let them argue the subject. But in the meantime, I think I'll indulge my intuition and regard the blackbird as a conscious being. He's a friend now. I call him Bud.
-- Diane Cooledge Porter
This article appeared as Diane Porter's regular column, "Backyard Notes," in the October, 2007, issue of The Backyard Bird Newsletter. Photo copyright Michael and Diane Porter 2007. Text copyright 2007 by Diane Porter.
Painting of red-winged blackbird is by Alan Messer. (See larger image.) For information on purchasing the right to use the picture, please see the artist's contact information. The original painting is also available for sale through the artist.