Meet us on:
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "Politeness and consideration for others is like investing pennies and getting dollars back."

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    Ch. 5: Fear In Birds

    • Rate it:
    • Average Rating: 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating
    Launch Reading Mode Next Chapter
    Chapter 6
    Previous Chapter
    The statement that birds instinctively fear man is frequently met with
    in zoological works written since the _Origin of Species_ appeared; but
    almost the only reason--absolutely the only plausible reason, all the
    rest being mere supposition--given in support of such a notion is that
    birds in desert islands show at first no fear of man, but afterwards,
    finding him a dangerous neighbour, they become wild; and their young
    also grow up wild. It is thus assumed that the habit acquired by the
    former has become hereditary in the latter--or, at all events, that in
    time it becomes hereditary. Instincts, which are few in number in any
    species, and practically endure for ever, are not, presumably, acquired
    with such extraordinary facility.

    Birds become shy where persecuted, and the young, even when not
    disturbed, learn a shy habit from the parents, and from other adults
    they associate with. I have found small birds shyer in desert places,
    where the human form was altogether strange to them, than in
    thickly-settled districts. Large birds are actually shyer than the small
    ones, although, to the civilized or shooting man they seem astonishingly
    tame where they have never been fired at. I have frequently walked quite
    openly to within twenty-five or thirty yards of a flock of flamingoes
    without alarming them. This, however, was when they were in the water,
    or on the opposite side of a stream. Having no experience of guns, they
    fancied themselves secure as long as a strip of water separated them
    from the approaching object. When standing on dry land they would not
    allow so near an approach. Sparrows in England aro very much tamer than
    the sparrows I have observed in desert places, where they seldom see a
    human being. Nevertheless young sparrows in England are very much tamer
    than old birds, as anyone may see for himself. During the past summer,
    while living near Kew Gardens, I watched the sparrows a great deal, and
    fed forty or fifty of them every day from a back window. The bread and
    seed was thrown on to a low roof just outside the window, and I noticed
    that the young birds when first able to fly were always brought by the
    parents to this feeding place, and that after two or three visits they
    would begin to come of their own accord. At such times they would
    venture quite close to me, showing as little suspicion as young
    chickens. The adults, however, although so much less shy than birds of
    other species, were extremely suspicious, snatching up the bread and
    flying away; or, if they remained, hopping about in a startled manner,
    craning their necks to view me, and making so many gestures and motions,
    and little chirps of alarm, that presently the young would become
    infected with fear. The lesson was taught them in a surprisingly short
    time; their suspicion was seen to increase day by day, and about a week
    later they were scarcely to be distinguished, in behaviour from the
    adults. It is plain that, with these little birds, fear of man is an
    associate feeling, and that, unless it had been taught them, his
    presence would trouble them as little as does that of horse, sheep, or
    cow. But how about the larger species, used as food, and which have had
    a longer and sadder experience of man's destructive power?

    The rhea, or South American ostrich, philosophers tell us, is a very
    ancient bird on the earth; and from its great size and inability to
    escape by flight, and its excellence as food, especially to savages, who
    prefer fat rank-flavoured flesh, it must have been systematically
    persecuted by man as long as, or longer than, any bird now existing on
    the globe. If fear of man ever becomes hereditary in birds, we ought
    certainly to find some trace of such an instinct in this species. I have
    been unable to detect any, though I have observed scores of young rheas
    in captivity, taken before the parent bird had taught them what to fear.
    I also once kept a brood myself, captured just after they had hatched
    out. With regard to food they were almost, or perhaps quite,
    independent, spending most of the time catching flies, grasshoppers, and
    other insects with surprising dexterity; but of the dangers encompassing
    the young rhea they knew absolutely frothing. They would follow me about
    as if they took me for their parent; and, whenever I imitated the loud
    snorting or rasping warning-call emitted the old bird in moments of
    danger, they would to me in the greatest terror, though no animal was in
    sight, and, squatting at my feet, endeavour to conceal themselves by
    thrusting their heads and long necks up my trousers. If I had caused a
    person to dress in white or yellow clothes for several consecutive days,
    and had then uttered the warning cry each time he showed himself to the
    birds, I have no doubt that they would soon have acquired a habit of
    running in terror from him, even without the warning cry, and that the
    fear of a person in white or yellow would have continued all their
    lives. Up to within about twenty years ago, rheas were seldom or never
    shot in La Plata and Patagonia, but were always hunted on horseback and
    caught with the bolas. The sight of a mounted man would set them off at
    once, while a person on foot could walk quite openly to within easy
    shooting distance of them; yet their fear of a horseman dates only two
    hundred years back--a very short time, when we consider that, before the
    Indian borrowed the horse from the invader, he must have systematically
    pursued the rhea on foot for centuries. The rhea changed its habits when
    the hunter changed his, and now, if an _estanciero_ puts down ostrich
    hunting on his estate, in a very few years the birds, although wild
    birds still, become as fearless and familiar as domestic animals. I have
    known old and ill-tempered males to become a perfect nuisance on some
    estancias, running after and attacking every person, whether on foot or
    on horseback, that ventured near them. An old instinct of a whole race
    could not be thus readily lost here and there on isolated estates
    wherever a proprietor chose to protect his birds for half a dozen years.

    I suppose the Talegallus--the best-known brush-turkey--must be looked on
    as an exception to all other birds with regard to the point I am
    considering; for this abnormal form buries its eggs in the huge mound
    made by the male, and troubles herself no more about them. When the
    young is fully developed it simply kicks the coffin to pieces in which
    its mother interred it, and, burrowing its way up to the sunshine,
    enters on the pleasures and pains of an independent existence from
    earliest infancy--that is, if a species born into the world in full
    possession of all the wisdom of the ancients, can be said ever to know
    infancy. At all events, from Mr. Bartlett's observations on the young
    hatched in the Zoological Gardens, it appears that they took no notice
    of the old birds, but lived quite independently from the moment they
    came out of the ground, even flying up into a tree and roosting
    separately at night. I am not sure, however, that these observations are
    quite conclusive; for it is certain that captivity plays strange pranks
    with the instincts of some species, and it is just possible that in a
    state of nature the old birds exercise at first some slight parental
    supervision, and, like all other species, have a peculiar cry to warn
    the young of the dangers to be avoided. If this is not so, then the
    young Talegallus must fly or hide with instinctive tear from every
    living thing that approaches it. I, at any rate, find it hard to believe
    that it has a knowledge, independent of experience, of the different
    habits of man and kangaroo, and dis-criminates at first sight between
    animals that are dangerous to it and those that are not. This
    interesting point will probably never be determined, as, most unhappily,
    the Australians are just now zealously engaged in exterminating their
    most wonderful bird for the sake of its miserable flesh; and with less
    excuse than the Maories could plead with regard to the moa, since they
    cannot deny that they have mutton and rabbit enough to satisfy hunger.

    Whether birds fear or have instinctive knowledge of any of their enemies
    is a much larger question. Species that run freely on the ground from
    the time of quitting the shell know their proper food, and avoid
    whatever is injurious. Have all young birds a similarly discriminating
    instinct with regard to their enemies? Darwin says, "Fear of any
    particular enemy is certainly an instinctive quality, as may be seen in
    nestling birds." Here, even man seems to be included among the enemies
    feared instinctively; and in another passage he says, "Young chickens
    have lost, wholly from habit, that fear of the dog and cat which, no
    doubt, was originally instinctive in them." My own observations point to
    a contrary conclusion; and I may say that I have had unrivalled
    opportunities for studying the habits of young birds.

    Animals of all classes, old and young, shrink with instinctive fear from
    any strange object approaching them. A piece of newspaper carried
    accidentally by the wind is as great an object of terror to an
    inexperienced young bird as a buzzard sweeping down with death in its
    talons. Among birds not yet able to fly there are, however, some curious
    exceptions; thus the young of most owls and pigeons are excited to anger
    rather than fear, and, puffing themselves up, snap and strike at an
    intruder with their beaks. Other fledglings simply shrink down in the
    nest or squat close on the ground, their fear, apparently, being in
    proportion to the suddenness with which the strange animal or object
    comes on them; but, if the deadliest enemy approaches with slow caution,
    as snakes do--and snakes must be very ancient enemies to birds--there is
    no fear or suspicion shown, even when the enemy is in full view and
    about to strike. This, it will be understood, is when no warning-cry is
    uttered by the parent bird. This shrinking, and, in some cases, hiding
    from an object corning swiftly towards them, is the "wildness_"_ of
    young birds, which, Darwin says again, is greater in wild than in
    domestic species. Of the extreme tameness of the young rhea I have
    already spoken; I have also observed young tinamous, plovers, coots,
    &c., hatched by fowls, and found them as incapable of distinguishing
    friend from foe as the young of domestic birds. The only difference
    between the young of wild and tame is that the former are, as a rule,
    much more sprightly and active. But there are many exceptions; and if
    this greater alertness and activity is what is meant by "wildness," then
    the young of some wild birds--rhea, crested screamer, &c.--are actually
    much tamer than our newly-hatched chickens and ducklings.

    To return to what may be seen in nestling birds, n very young, and
    before their education has begun, if quietly approached and touched,
    they open their bills and take food as readily from a man as from the
    parent bird. But if while being thus fed the parent returns and emits
    the warning note, they instantly cease their hunger-cries, close their
    gaping mouths, and crouch down frightened in the nest. This fear caused
    by the parent bird's warning note begins to manifest itself even before
    the young are hatched--and my observations on this point refer to
    several species in three widely separated orders. When the little
    prisoner is hammering at its shell, and uttering its feeble _peep,_ as
    if begging to be let out, if the warning note is uttered, even at a
    considerable distance, the strokes and complaining instantly cease, and
    the chick will then remain quiescent in the shell for a long time, or
    until the parent, by a changed note, conveys to it an intimation that
    the danger is over. Another proof that the nestling has absolutely no
    instinctive knowledge of particular enemies, but is taught to fear them
    by the parents, is to be found in the striking contrast between the
    habits of parasitical and genuine young in the nest, and after they have
    left it, while still unable to find their own food. I have had no
    opportunities of observing the habits of the young cuckoo in England
    with regard to this point, and do not know whether other observers have
    paid any attention to the matter or not, but I am very familiar with the
    manners of the parasitical starling or cow-bird of South America. The
    warning cries of the foster parent have no effect on the young cow-bird
    at any time. Until they are able to fly they will readily devour worms
    from the hand of a man, even when the old birds are hovering close by
    and screaming their danger notes, and while their own young, if the
    parasite has allowed any to survive in the nest, are crouching down in
    the greatest fear. After the cow-bird has left the nest it is still
    stupidly tame, and more than once I have seen one carried off from its
    elevated perch by a milvago hawk, when, if it had understood the warning
    cry of the foster parent, it would have dropped down into the bush or
    grass and escaped. But as soon as the young cow-birds are able to shift
    for themselves, and begin to associate with their own kind, their habits
    change, and they become suspicious and wild like other birds.

    On this point--the later period at which the parasitical young bird
    acquires fear of man--and also bearing on the whole subject under
    discussion, I shall add here some observations I once made on a dove
    hatched and reared by a pigeon at my home on the pampas. A very large
    ombú tree grew not far from the dove-cote, and some of the pigeons used
    to make their nests on the lower horizontal branches. One summer a dove
    of the most common species, Zenaida maculata, in size a third less than
    the domestic pigeon, chanced to drop an egg in one of these nests, and a
    young dove was hatched and reared; and, in due time, when able to fly,
    it was brought to the dove-cote. I watched it a great deal, and it was
    evident that this foster-young, though' with the pigeons, was not nor
    ever would be of them, for it could not take kiudly to their flippant
    flirty ways. Whenever a male approached it, and with guttural noises and
    strange gestures made a pompous declaration of amorous feelings, the
    dove would strike vigorously at its undesirable lover, and drive him
    off, big as he was; and, as a rule, it would sit apart, afoot or so,
    from the others. The dove was also a male; but its male companions, with
    instinct tainted by domestication, were ignorant alike of its sex and
    different species. Now, it chanced that my pigeons, never being fed and
    always finding their own living on the plain like wild birds, were,
    although still domestic, not nearly so tame as pigeons usually are in
    England. They would not allow a person to approach within two or three
    yards of them without flying, and if grain was thrown to them they would
    come to it very suspiciously, or not at all. And, of course, the young
    pigeons always acquired the exact degree of suspicion shown by the
    adults as soon as they were able to fly and consort with the others. But
    the foundling Zenaida did not know what their startled gestures and
    notes of fear meant when a person approached too near, and as he saw
    none of his own kind, he did not acquire their suspicious habit. On the
    contrary, he was perfectly tame, although by parentage a wild bird, and
    showed no more fear of a man than of a horse. Throughout the winter it
    remained with the pigeons, going afield every day with them, and
    returning to the dove-cote; but as spring approached the slight tie
    which united him to them began to be loosened; their company grew less
    and less congenial, and he began to lead a solitary life. But he did not
    go to the trees yet. He came to the house, and his favourite perch was
    on the low overhanging roof of a vine-covered porch, just over the main
    entrance. Here he would pass several hours every day, taking no notice
    of the people passing in and out at all times; and when the weather grew
    warm he would swell out his breast and coo mournfully by the hour for
    our pleasure.

    We can, no doubt, learn best by observing the behaviour of nestlings and
    young birds; nevertheless, I find much even in the confirmed habits of
    adults to strengthen me in the belief that fear of particular enemies is
    in nearly all cases--for I will not say all--the result of experience
    and tradition.

    Hawks are the most open, violent, and persistent enemies birds have; and
    it is really wonderful to see how well the persecuted kinds appear to
    know the power for mischief possessed by different raptorial species,
    and how exactly the amount of alarm exhibited is in proportion to the
    extent of the danger to be apprehended. Some raptors never attack birds,
    others only occasionally; still others prey only on the young and
    feeble; and, speaking of La Plata district, where I have observed hawks,
    from the milvago chimango--chiefly a carrion-eater--to the destructive
    peregrine falcon, there is a very great variety of predatory habits, and
    all degrees of courage to be found; yet all these raptors are treated
    differently by species liable to be preyed on, and have just as much
    respect paid them as their strength and daring entitles them to, and no
    more, So much discrimination must seem almost incredible to those who
    are not very familiar with the manners of wild birds; I do not think it
    could exist if the fear shown resulted from instinct or inherited habit.
    There would be no end to the blunders of such an instinct as that; and
    in regions where hawks are extremely abundant most of the birds would bo
    in a constant state of trepidation. On the pampas the appearance of the
    comparatively harmless chimango excites not the least alarm among small
    birds, yet at a distance it closely resembles a henharrier, and it also
    readily attacks young, sick, and wounded birds; all others know how
    little they have to fear from it. When it appears unexpectedly,
    sweeping over a hedge or grove with a rapid flight, it is sometimes
    mistaken for a more dangerous species; there is then a little flutter of
    alarm, some birds springing into the air, but in two or three seconds of
    time they discover their mistake, and settle down quietly again, taking
    no further notice of the despised carrion-eater. On the other hand, I
    have frequently mistaken a harrier (Circus cinereus, in the brown state
    of plumage) for a chimango, and have only discovered my mistake by
    seeing the commotion among the small birds. The harrier I have
    mentioned, also the C. macropterus, feed partly on small birds, which
    they flush from the ground and strike down with their claws. When the
    harrier appears moving along with a loitering flight near the surface,
    it is everywhere attended by a little whirlwind of alarm, small birds
    screaming or chirping excitedly and diving into the grass or bushes; but
    the alarm does not spread far, and subsides as soon as the hawk has
    passed on its way. Buzzards (Buteo and Urubitinga) are much more feared,
    and create a more widespread alarm, and they ars certainly more
    destructive to birds than harriers. Another curious instance is that of
    the sociable hawk (Rostrhanrus sociabilis). This bird spends the summer
    and breeds in marshes in La Plata, and birds pay no attention to it, for
    it feeds exclusively on water-snails (Ampullaria). But when it visits
    woods and plantations to roost, during migration, its appearance creates
    as much alarm as that of a true buzzard, which it closely resembles.
    Wood-birds, unaccustomed to see it, do not know its peculiar preying
    habits, and how little they need fear its presence. I may also mention
    that the birds of La Plata seem to fear the kite-like Elanus less than
    other hawks, and I believe that its singular resemblance to the common
    gull of the district in its size, snowy-white plumage and manner of
    flight, has a deceptive effect on most species, and makes them so little
    suspicious of it,

    The wide-ranging peregrine falcon is a common species in La Plata,
    although, oddly enough, not included in any notice of the avifauna of
    that region before 1888. The consternation caused among birds by its
    appearance is vastly greater than that produced by any of the raptors I
    have mentioned: and it is unquestionably very much more destructive to
    birds, since it preys exclusively on them, and, as a rule, merely picks
    the flesh from the head and neck, and leaves the untouched body to its
    jackal, the carrion-hawk. When the peregrine appears speeding through
    the air in a straight line at a great height, the feathered world, as
    far as one able to see, is thrown into the greatest commo-tion, all
    birds, from the smallest up to species large as duck, ibis, and curlew,
    rushing about in the air as if distracted. When the falcon has
    disappeared in the sky, and the wave of terror attending its progress
    subsides behind it, the birds still continue wild and excited for some
    time, showing how deeply they have been moved; for, as a rule, fear is
    exceedingly transitory in its effects on animals,

    I must, before concluding this part of my subject, mention another
    raptor, also a true falcon, but differing from the peregrine in being
    exclusively a marsh-hawk. In size it is nearly a third less than the
    male peregrine, which it resembles in its sharp wings and manner of
    flight, but its flight is much more rapid. The whole plumage, is
    uniformly of a dark grey colour. Unfortunately, though I have observed
    it not fewer than a hundred times, I have never been able to procure a
    specimen, nor do I find that it is like any American falcon already
    described; so that for the present it must remain nameless. Judging
    solely from the effect produced by the appearance of this hawk, it must
    be even more daring and destructive than its larger relation, the
    peregrine. It flies at a great height, and sometimes descends vertically
    and with extraordinary velocity, the wings producing a sound like a
    deep-toned horn. The sound is doubtless produced at will, and is
    certainly less advantageous to the hawk than to the birds it pursues. No
    doubt it can afford to despise the wing-power of its quarry; and I have
    sometimes thought that it takes a tyrannous delight in witnessing the
    consternation caused by its hollow trumpeting sound. This may be only a
    fancy, but some hawks do certainly take pleasure in pursuing and
    striking birds when not seeking prey. The peregrine has been observed,
    Baird says, capturing birds, only to kill and drop them. Many of the
    Felidae, we know, evince a similar habit; only these prolong their
    pleasure by practising a more refined and deliberate cruelty.

    The sudden appearance overhead of this hawk produces an effect wonderful
    to witness. I have frequently seen all the inhabitants of a marsh struck
    with panic, acting as if demented, and suddenly grown careless to all
    other dangers; and on such occasions I have looked up confident of
    seeing the sharp-winged death, suspended above them in the sky. All
    birds that happen to be on the wing drop down as if shot into the reeds
    or water; ducks away from the margin stretch out their necks
    horizontally and drag their bodies, as if wounded, into closer cover;
    not one bird is found bold enough to rise up and wheel about the
    marauder--a usual proceeding in the case of other hawks; while, at every
    sudden stoop the falcon makes, threatening to dash down on his prey, a
    low cry of terror rises from the birds beneath; a sound expressive of an
    emotion so contagious that it quickly runs like a murmur all over the
    marsh, as if a gust of wind had swept moaning through, the rushes. As
    long as the falcon hangs overhead, always at a height of about forty
    yards, threatening at intervals to dash down, this murmuring sound, made
    up of many hundreds of individual cries, is heard swelling and dying
    away, and occasionally, when he drops lower than usual, rising to a
    sharp scream of terror.

    Sometimes when I have been riding over marshy ground, one of these hawks
    has placed himself directly over my head, within fifteen or twenty yards
    of me; and it has perhaps acquired the habit of following a horseman in
    this way in order to strike at any birds driven up. On one occasion my
    horse almost trod on a couple of snipe squatting terrified in the short
    grass. The instant they rose the hawk struck at one, the end of his wing
    violently smiting my cheek as he stooped, and striking at the snipe on a
    level with the knees of my horse. The snipe escaped by diving under the
    bridle, and immediately dropped down on the other side of me, and the
    hawk, rising up, flew away.

    To return. I think I am justified in believing that fear of hawks, like
    fear of men, is, in very nearly all cases, the result of experience and
    tradition. Nevertheless, I think it probable that in some species which
    have always lived in the open, continually exposed to attack, and which
    are preferred as food by raptors, such as duck, snipe, and plover, the
    fear of the falcon may be an inherited habit. Among passerine birds I am
    also inclined to think that swallows show inherited fear of hawks.
    Swallows and humming-birds have least to fear from raptors; yet, while
    humming-birds readily pursue and tease hawks, thinking as little of them
    as of pigeons or herons, swallows everywhere manifest the greatest
    terror at the approach of a true falcon; and they also fear other birds
    of prey, though in a much less degree. It has been said that the
    European hobby occasionally catches swal-lows on the wing, but this
    seems a rare and exceptional habit, and in South America I have never
    seen any bird of prey attempt the pursuit of a swallow. The question
    then arises, how did this unnecessary fear, so universal in swallows,
    originate? Can it be a survival of a far past--a time when some
    wide-ranging small falcon, aerial in habits as the swallow itself,
    preyed by preference on hirundines only ?

    [NOTE.-Herbert Spencer, who accepts Darwin's inference, explains how the
    fear of man, acquired by experience, becomes instinctive in birds, in
    the following passage: "It is well known that in newly-discovered lands
    not inhabited by man, birds are so devoid of fear as to allow themselves
    to be knocked over with sticks; but that, in the course of generations,
    they acquire such a dread of man as to fly on his approach: and that
    this dread is manifested by young as well as by old. Now unless this
    change be ascribed to the killing-off of the least fearful, and the
    preservation and multiplication of the most fearful which, considering
    the comparatively small number killed by man, is an inadequate cause, it
    must be ascribed to accumulated experience; and each experience must be
    held to have a share in producing it. We must conclude that in each bird
    that escapes with injuries inflicted by man, or is alarmed by the
    outcries of other members of the flock (gregarious creatures of any
    intelligence being necessarily more or less sympathetic), there is
    established an association of ideas between the human aspect and the
    pains, direct and in-direct, suffered from human agency. And we must
    further con-clude, that the state of consciousness which compels the
    bird to take flight, is at first nothing more than an ideal reproduction
    of those painful impressions which before followed man's approach; that
    such ideal reproduction becomes more vivid and more massive as the
    painful experiences, direct or sympathetic, increase; and that thus the
    emotion, in its incipient state, is nothing else than an aggregation of
    the revived pains before experience.

    "As, in the course of generations, the young birds of this race begin to
    display a fear of man before yet they have been injured by him, it is an
    unavoidable inference that the nervous system of the race has been
    organically modified by these experiences, we have no choice but to
    conclude, that when a young bird is led to fly, it is because the
    impression produced in its senses by the approaching man entails,
    through an incipiently reflex action, a partial excitement of all those
    nerves which in its ancestors had been excited under the like
    conditions; that this partial excitement has its accompanying painful
    consciousness, and that the vague painful consciousness thus arising
    constitutes emotion proper--_emotion undecomposable into specific
    experiences, and, therefore, seemingly homogeneous"_ (Essays, vol. i. p.

    It is comforting to know that the "unavoidable inference" is, after all,
    erroneous, and that the nervous system in birds has not yet been
    organically altered as a result of man's persecution; for in that case
    it would take long to undo the mischief, and we should be indeed far
    from that "better friendship" with the children of the air which many of
    us would like to see.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 6
    Previous Chapter
    If you're writing a W. H. Hudson essay and need some advice, post your W. H. Hudson essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Want to read

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?