Young birds learning the ropes

Bruce Mactavish
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On a hot early August afternoon, while enjoying a cold golden beverage on my back deck overlooking the Waterford River in St. John’s, I was joggled from my summer daze by the increasing sounds of starlings.

The noise was coming from the trees in the yard next door and spreading into the canopy of the tall Norway maples in my backyard. Starlings are a regular event of summer in my yard.

A band of about 30 starlings were systematically investigating the abundance of rolled up maples leaves. Some kind of insect grub hits my maple trees most summers. It is easy pickings for the starlings with their long bills as they extract the grubs tucked away in their rolled up leaf home.

The gruff calls of young birds were the main sound. The young birds were identified by their smooth gray colour. The adults were glossy black. Some were showing the silver spots of winter plumage already. They wear the spotted plumage from September to March.

It was fascinating to watch how the young birds were in the process of learning how to feed themselves.

Some were being fed occasionally by an adult. But most of the time young birds were watching how the adults did it and then tried foraging that way for themselves.

I was witnessing the weaning of young starlings. The young starlings were obviously clumsy at pulling the grubs out of the leafy cones but at least they were going through the motions. Eventually, they would learn the technique which results in a food reward. It took 30 minutes for the starling troop to move through my maple trees.

Who knows how many grubs they decimated? Then they flew across the river to work on other trees.

Moira O’Regan-Hogan and family learned more about young starlings growing up then they bargained for.

On July 18 Moira’s son found a young starling unable to fly and in a near-death condition on the ground.

The caring instinct took over and they brought the bird home with no idea how to care for it. Miraculously, they were able to bring it back to life by feeding it a mixture of cat food and boiled eggs.

Two and half weeks later after much effort (including adjusting working schedules to care for the bird) Henry, as it has been named, is doing remarkably well.

The big question is will the starling learn how to find food on its own without the benefit of watching adult starlings? I am guessing that once it really gains strength enough to fly and is released back into the wild it will join a flock of starlings and learn quickly from them about how to live in the wild.

Birds have ingrown instincts bred into them to help learn the ropes of life in a hurry.

They learn a great deal from their parents in the week or so after leaving the nest. Last weekend I witnessed young crows learning how to feed by the water’s edge.

The adult crow walked to the edge of the gravelly beach and began probing in the water with its bill. Two young crows flanked the adult so close as to nearly be rubbing shoulders.

I think they were hoping for a free meal, but the adult was ignoring them. It allowed them to watch at point-blank range but there were no more free meals.

The two young crows began going through the motions of looking for food with their own bills, probing around the pebbles under the water. Maybe they didn’t even know what they were looking for, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do to fill that hunger craving. If they were successful at finding food they would probably remember the reward for the effort and thus have earned one more little step toward making it as a crow.

Hunger causes fast-track learning.

I saw another example of this on the weekend.

At Spaniard’s Bay, Conception Bay, there is a large colony of nesting ring-billed gulls on the gravel beach. There were an impressive number of young gulls on the beach.

Most were just learning to fly and were still dependent on the adults to bring them food.

But some were already flying and on their own.

At nearby Mad Rock it was obvious there were caplin in the water. Minke whales were swimming about, gannets were diving and gulls were swarming low over the water. Among the gulls were a good many juvenile ring-billed gulls.

I am sure most of them had left the nest within the last few days or week at most, yet they were going through the same motions as the adults flying low over the water looking for caplin.

They probably learn to hunt for their own food through imitating the adults. Once they realize that it actually works, they quickly refine their methods. The reward of food is the best learning tool.

At this time of the summer there are countless young birds learning the ropes of life. There are no guarantees in the feathered world. A successful bird is physically fit and acquires important knowledge on survival.

Nature has provided each species with a formula that works. It is up to each individual bird to make it happen, one step at a time.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid

birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Norway, Conception Bay

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