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Some birds never learn to play nicely with others

Some birds never learn to play nicely with others

Spring brings returning travelers, nests in apple trees, abundant song … and feistiness.{br class="hardreturn" /}
I’m referring to the defense of a territory. If a male doesn’t have a territory and defend it from intruders, birds of a great many species can forget about attracting a mate and raising a family. This goes for robins, chickadees, red-tailed hawks and wrens, along with a great many others. The defense of territory typically involves threats in the form of song and displays, but when these fail, feet, wings and bills are brought to bear in a general melee.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Once a pair fledges their young and is done breeding, the feistiness fades, and drifters and others venturing into their area are no longer challenged. As summer progresses, there are more and more flocks of birds. Grudges are forgotten and many birds band together for safety and migration. Starlings form flocks, often quite sizable by the Fourth of July. Robins, meadowlarks and blackbirds also congregate into sizable flocks starting in the late summer. Still others remain in modest family groups, including chickadees and bluebirds, which go about the business of finding food in peace until the next bout of feistiness with the coming of the breeding season.{br class="hardreturn" /}
However, there are a few species that are protective of their real estate even in winter. They never learn to play nicely with others.{br class="hardreturn" /}
East of the Cascades in juniper country, Townsend’s solitaires, a slender gray thrush with white in the tail and salmon-colored wing bars, claim a patch of junipers and keep other solitaires out. There are only so many juniper berries to feed on for the entire winter. It will perch high in a tree giving its penetrating call note announcing its ownership of a hillside or canyon.{br class="hardreturn" /}
While suffering one of those wonderful colds that the holiday season so often brings, I learned of another species that remains feisty in winter. From my bed I heard a bit of rustling at the bedroom window. Eventually I came out of my viral haze to look over at the window. And there was a hermit thrush in the dogwood staring down the window, wings quivering. After giving my house a respectable amount of time to leave (along with his reflection), the bird again flew at the window — wings flailing and feet grappling. After a moment it returned to its perch in the shrub and again asked my house if it had had enough. Houses can be so indifferent to the needs of others.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Apparently, there aren’t enough berries and insects in my yard to share with others, at least not as far as the hermit thrush is concerned. I have always had a hermit thrush about in winter, but only one. It never occurred to me that it was because they were territorial, running off other hermit thrushes.{br class="hardreturn" /}
I have to wonder if other birds in the area are territorial in winter. The golden-crowned sparrows and juncos are sociable enough, but I have only a single ruby-crowned kinglet and a single pair of oak titmice and California towhees in the yard. In the absence of song, I will have to watch more closely to see if these birds are a bit feisty too.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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