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Birds do some pretty amazing things—but sometimes they can seem too bizarre, mysterious, or subtle to get a handle on. This section gives you a toolbox for interpreting new behaviors when you encounter them.

Watch this clip of two Laysan Albatrosses in a Hawaiian backyard. Ask yourself, what are they doing—and why?

Two Laysan Albatrosses on a lawn repeatedly touch beaks, make calls, and raise their wings.End of transcript

How can you approach interpreting this odd interaction? When you encounter a new behavior, it can help to think about a series of broad questions.

Think about the following questions.

1. What did I just see?

Every line of inquiry begins with taking the time to make observations. Start by outlining what you saw:

  • Were the movements big or small?
  • Were any movements repeated?
  • Were multiple birds involved? If so, were their movements made in response to one another?
  • Were other objects like twigs or food involved?
  • Did the birds appear aggressive, submissive, or were they giving mixed messages?

In the case of the albatrosses, you might summarize your observations with “I saw two birds making big, repeated movements, seemingly in response to one another and appearing at times both aggressive and submissive, with no other objects involved.”

2. Have I made any assumptions?

Observations can often become muddied if assumptions, things you accept as true with no real evidence, sneak their way in. By avoiding making accidental assumptions, you will save yourself from “barking up the wrong tree.” Ask yourself:

  • Is it convincingly supported by something I saw or heard?

For example, did you assume the albatrosses were a male and a female? We’re used to seeing mating pairs of birds, so this is an easy assumption to make, but there is actually no way to determine the sex of a Laysan Albatross from this video clip.

One kind of assumption you can make is anthropomorphism, or thinking that a bird feels and thinks similarly to how a human would. We have no way to know what a bird is feeling or thinking. We can only watch its actions and try to put them in context with what we know about the bird’s life history.

Assumptions can be helpful as long as you recognize them as such. They allow you to make predictions that can be either be supported or rejected by further observations. For example, you could ask yourself, “assuming that crow carrying a stick is building a nest, what might I expect to happen next?”

3. What questions am I interested in answering?

When trying to understand a behavior, what exactly do you want to understand about it? If you can formulate your curiosity into specific questions, you’ll make your task a lot easier. Remember to focus on “how” and “why” questions, because answering both kinds will help you get a fuller understanding of the behavior. In particular:

  • “How” questions get to the bottom of what the bird was doing in the moment and explain the immediate decisions of individual birds.
  • “Why” questions explain the forces that shape the behavior of a species and contribute to survival or reproduction.

4. How could the behavior help a bird to survive or reproduce?

Everything any wild creature does is tied up in this question. Behaviors that don’t aid in reproduction or survival will eventually disappear. If you see a bird doing something, it’s almost certainly helping the bird achieve one or both of those two goals. By focusing on how the behavior might support them, you are likely to be on the right track.

Differentiating between survival and reproduction as a behavior’s main motivation can often be your primary challenge. Some examples of helpful questions you can ask yourself include:

  • What season is it? Breeding season and migration season will have very different behaviors.
  • Do you see other birds that might be potential mates, actual mates, or offspring nearby?
  • Is food involved? If so, is the bird taking it somewhere?

5. What other explanation might there be?

Based on your observations, and considering details like time of year and survival value, you’ve made an educated guess about the function of the behavior. Now what?

  • Consider other possibilities. What other circumstances could explain your observations? How would you distinguish which explanation is correct?
  • Always remember that birds do things that we don’t yet understand. The more we learn about the bird’s life history, the better chance we have of interpreting the behavior.

Get Comfortable Interpreting Interactions Like This

Two Barn Swallow posturing

Can you interpret this Barn Swallow body language?

These birds are clearly in the midst of a heated behavioral interaction. But what is it all about and what can you tell about the interaction from the postures you see? In this course, you will learn how to interpret interactions like this and use the skills you develop to confidently interpret the behaviors of your favorite birds.

This is sample content from Understanding Bird Behavior. In this self-paced online course you’ll gain skills that will keep you fascinated for a lifetime. Free digital subscription to Birds of the World included.

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