Are birds as curious about us as we are about them?
Because they fascinate us. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 1/5 of the US population in 2011 watched birds, spending a combined $40 billion on their hobby. That’s a lot of birdseed and binoculars! But do our feathered friends return the favor?
I know they react to humans the same way they’d respond to any other large potential predator. When we get too close, they flee. When we blunder onto a Ruffed Grouse with chicks, the adult feigns a broken wing to lead us away or charges straight at us. (Just for the record: an angry Ruffed Grouse parent LOOKS HUGE.) Pigeons and Crows recognize human facial features to avoid people who have harassed them in the past.
But do they seek us out when we don’t pose a threat? Sure, flocks of Chickadees sometimes follow me through the woods. Sitting motionless in the forest can lure other species closer, notably one Scarlet Tanager that sat on a low branch to study me for what seemed like an hour. But do they surround me because I’m enthralling or because they want to snack on the mosquitoes buzzing nearby? I’ve never been quite certain.
Pishing will also lure wild birds closer, probably because the noise sounds like an avian alarm call. If you can say silly syllables, and looking like a fool doesn’t bother you, you can pish. I have both requirements, so I use it often, and have found it works best outside of nesting season. Another option is to trick a bird into broadcasting a warning for you. I have done this by choosing the exact wrong moment to study a nest. The returning owner makes a fuss, squawking and dive-bombing me, and dozens of feathered heads pop out of hiding. Unfortunately, it turns out that identifying them while dodging furious wings is darn near impossible.
But last week, my family and I were on speakerphone with my mother, and I witnessed something I’d never seen before. The weather was more typical of September than November, so we had the slider open as we joked with Mom, loudly enough that she’d hear all of us. Partway through the call, my husband nudged me and motioned toward the door. A group of Chickadees and Titmice, perched on the pruned grapevine outside, watched us through the screen. Not foraging, not just sitting there, and not just one. We didn’t pose a threat to them. We had no food for them. Yet all of them were looking inside. Why?
A little research unearthed a recent study that found Black-capped Chickadees can recognize some of our strongest feelings by listening to us. For example, they understand a scream means fear. Was that the reason the flock was staring at us? Did they understand that laughing means happiness, and they wanted to share it? Or is the explanation simpler: is our laughter so rare that they needed to investigate the unfamiliar sound?
Either way, I think I need to laugh more often. A little bird told me to.