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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 20:25   #1
George London
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Why are birds SO scared of humans (UK)?

I can understand game birds and other birds that are shot. I can understand birds that are illegally persecuted.

What I can't quite understand is why pretty much ALL birds are so scared of us. Particularly passerines. Sometimes I get close to wrens, robins and tits, but even with these guys I can just as easily find them fleeing at the mere sight of me (although I guess some humans are like that too! Last weekend there were green woodpeckers fleeing at 30 plus yards (interestingly, probably about the range of a shotgun). When was the last time any of these birds were genuinely imperilled by individual humans - trashing their habitat is another matter, but I don't believe they are intelligent enough to make that connection.

However, I do believe they are intelligent enough to identify and weigh up a threat; i would suggest most of us have seen this many, many times. There are hundreds of documentaries showing that prey understands when an animal is not in 'hunting' mode and happy to get closer to that predator at these times. And that even if an animal is in 'hunting' mode, many are still acutely aware of the predator's speed and skills, adjusting accordingly - rather than simply disappearing off into the sunset. And prey seems to know what its predators are and what aren't.

The only answer I can think of and sort of get my head around is that over the millennia birds and most other animals have simply become hard wired into perceiving any human figure in pretty much any situation as a genuine and all reaching threat.

Can anyone solve this for me? Cheers George
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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 20:45   #2
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IThe only answer I can think of and sort of get my head around is that over the millennia birds and most other animals have simply become hard wired into perceiving any human figure in pretty much any situation as a genuine and all reaching threat.
I think you've got the answer right there. They have evolved to avoid predators and humans are a top predator. It's in their nature (hard-wired) but also learned behavior comes into play. Some birds can learn not to be afraid of humans over time. American Robins will come pretty close to humans when foraging on the ground...they really don't seem to care. Pigeons, ducks and geese can be fed easily in parks, as they have been socialized around humans enough to a relative degree to be ok when we are close...and Chickadees will eat right out of your hand (unfortunately, I've never had the pleasure to experience this). But, I would suspect that some species may be just 'too' hard-wired with self-preserving instinct and will only avoid humans at all costs. I have no real facts to back anything up that I am saying here though...mostly a guess along with some vague info that lingers in my mind from taking a bird biology course that sort of touched on this stuff.

Also, I've read that eye contact can frighten birds. Predator bird species need to beam in on their prey with their eyes and , in many cases, it may be the last thing the prey bird sees. I'm not sure how much of that is myth or fact though...but, I've read this in bird watching material somewhere.
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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 20:58   #3
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Part of the answer I think resides in the fact that human beings, unlike other predators, are tricky, experts both at disguising their intentions & at devising technology enabling them to kill at a distance in unexpected ways. The best tactic for potential prey therefore is to not take chances but to flee at sight.
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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 21:08   #4
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They still eat songbirds on the continent. Not too long ago in the UK too.
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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 21:28   #5
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Part of the answer I think resides in the fact that human beings, unlike other predators, are tricky, experts both at disguising their intentions & at devising technology enabling them to kill at a distance in unexpected ways. The best tactic for potential prey therefore is to not take chances but to flee at sight.
I think this is a very good answer. Birds cannot know our intentions when we approach, so natural instinct to avoid and flee takes over. Whether it's natural instinct or learned (or both) to view humans as a threat, fleeing is a good way to ensure an individual will live to breed again. We as birders are respectful of birds , but how many times in your life have you seen children throwing rocks or sticks at birds (?). As Dan points out passerines are hunted still. I worked with a Laotian man years ago...he would go out on lunch break with a slingshot and bag himself some birds for dinner. I had to tell him that most birds are protected here and he can buy chicken in the super market haha...but, in his culture this is what they did. I only caught him doing it once and it was a bit upsetting at the time.
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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 22:44   #6
George London
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They still eat songbirds on the continent. Not too long ago in the UK too.
I hadn't realised people ate songbirds (apart from maybe blackbirds) in UK. what did we eat and when did this stop/become illegal in UK? Have had a quick search on google but can't really find much on people killing or eating songbirds (in UK at least).

Fugl, sounds very sensible.

Cheers George
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Old Friday 15th February 2013, 22:54   #7
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Ah...I have to laugh...have you seen birders in Britain or really, in the states and other countries where birding is popular. I have seen pics of large groups of people taking shots, using bino's etc..all within a few feet of birds. So no wonder, they.....like humans, want their quite and peace once in a while! jim
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 02:15   #8
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I hadn't realised people ate songbirds (apart from maybe blackbirds) in UK. what did we eat and when did this stop/become illegal in UK?
Just about everything, I imagine. Protein is protein after all. As to when it ended/became illegal, late 19th/early 20th century would be my guess.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 03:26   #9
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Part of the answer I think resides in the fact that human beings, unlike other predators, are tricky, experts both at disguising their intentions & at devising technology enabling them to kill at a distance in unexpected ways. The best tactic for potential prey therefore is to not take chances but to flee at sight.
I was talking to an Aboriginal elder (a descendant of the local tribe) last year, and we were at the site of a former wetland swamp along a now controlled (dammed upstream with irrigation flow releases) river, and it's confluence with a now also terminally modified (railway line, industrial park, stormwater drainage, and incised channels running through agricultural land) 'valley fill' wetland /riparian system.

We were 'whispering the landscape' - reconstructing how the natural systems would have functioned, and what vegetation types would be present and where (a few old remanant river red gums now high and dry gave clues as to the amount, and extent of erosion that had taken place), and he was showing me ancestoral artifacts (mainly stone cutting tools etc) as we walked along the creekside (now part of an erosion control, revegetation, and cultural history project). We were saddened by the drastically negative change in such a short time (a Red Fox scurried across the fields just to add insult to injury!), but pleased with the progress made by the project (compared to the former paradise - in reality, only marginally better than shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic ..... =(

We reached a terrace (a former gentle bank of sorts, where the floodplain below, would have been largely wetland swamp). We stood there in silence for a while - looking - 'dreaming' ..... when (thinking from my binoholic birder's perspective) I said to him, "jeez, imagine all the birds that would have been down here .....", and with a twinkle in his eye, he slowly drawled, "Oooo, yeah - there would have been a few boomerangs flyin' around here".


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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 13:20   #10
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It can be somewhat dependent on the species as well.

Here in Aus, if I wander around my local patch, as I approach the Ducks, Ibises and Spoonbills, they slowly walk away rather than flee. The Kookaburras don't even do that and sometimes don't move until you're within less than a metre; likewise Willy Wagtails are ridiculously tame. You practically have to tread on Brush Turkeys before they move.

Other birds flee over the horizon if you so much as look at them from 50 metres away!
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 18:42   #11
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My experience is that a lot of resident passerines show a lot better here than the same species do in some European countries where they are still shot in numbers.

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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 20:18   #12
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I was going to start a thread on this subject but you beat me to it.Having been birding 40 yrs in UK and more than 20 yrs here in Spain,I find the birds here to be much more nervous of human activity.I do not know if this is due to the practice of hunting and trapping wild passerines,which still goes on here or the presence of the many raptors we have.What I do know even when sitting quietly birds are very much aware of your presence and often go from one point of cover to another making observation difficult. Even in the town the local pigeons and sparrows move away from you and only come near when you feed them.i know that during the Spanish civil war birds were a good source of protein and were shot or trapped in great numbers and I wonder if this nervousness is due to this learned process that all humans are seen as prey animals.Humans on horseback are not seen as such and birds do not take flight when you are on horseback.In conclusion I think it is easier to observe birds in the UK than it is here in Spain. Eddy.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 20:27   #13
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I hadn't realised people ate songbirds (apart from maybe blackbirds) in UK. what did we eat and when did this stop/become illegal in UK? Have had a quick search on google but can't really find much on people killing or eating songbirds (in UK at least).
A quick google search came up with very little for me too.

I do recollect that in the time of the 'Hastings Rarities' http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hastings_Rarities, 10's of thousands of largely passerines were trapped for food (probably London markets) on the south downs (which is where many of his rarities allegedly came from, with trappers being told to look out for rare or interesting birds. Except the rarities probably all came from abroad).

Anyway, bird liming all that kind of thing was part of country life in the early part of the last century. Hopefully someone can come up with some better evidence though.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 20:36   #14
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I hope this doesn't sound silly. Lots of dogs are friendly but I'm still wary of them. Especially when they seem to be on their own as happened to me today (two dogs). And I'm larger than dogs. If I was smaller I would be even more wary. And if I was a small bird I imagine I would be wary of giants viz. us.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 20:59   #15
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Here's a long newspaper article (and I do mean loong) on the market hunting of songbirds in the Mediterranean at the present time.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/810...and-eaten.html
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 21:02   #16
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I hope this doesn't sound silly. Lots of dogs are friendly but I'm still wary of them. Especially when they seem to be on their own as happened to me today (two dogs). And I'm larger than dogs. If I was smaller I would be even more wary. And if I was a small bird I imagine I would be wary of giants viz. us.
Understand you had a bad experience but you are more intelligent than a bird and this doesn't add up with them not being scared of deer... It is a 'human' specific thing, I think.

Eddy, it was very, very difficult in Mallorca in 2012. Forget 30 yards, we were talking 70 or 80 for bee eaters and shrikes... Was deeply saddening.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 22:05   #17
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Humans have front-facing eyes, which might contribute to a bird putting us in the "predator" category. Deer and other herbivores tend to have eyes that face to the side, giving a much different impression even if they are of a similar size to us. I find that birds are pretty good at knowing whether I am looking at them; if a bird is right next to the trail, for instance, it will often freeze rather than flush if I avert my eyes as I pass it. Obviously other factors come into play, but I think our eyes are an important one.
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Old Saturday 16th February 2013, 22:17   #18
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We are a pretty scary lot really....if I was a bird I'd be absolutely terrified...all these scopes, tripods, massive lenses, strange woolly hats, shouting, swearing, big dangly earings...no wonder they fly away, and that's just birders

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Old Sunday 17th February 2013, 09:11   #19
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I suggest raptor density also plays its part. In Borneo where the number of raptor species is high, those passerines that frequented more open habitats were generally wary, whereas those in dense understorey where raptors tended not to enter were more confiding. Any bird crossing an open area went deep into cover before perching, hugely frustrating when you had just picked it up in binocular view!

I haven't had quite so bad a time in southern Spain as Eddy, but then I often stop for quite long periods as close to cover as I can, not in the middle of a path - it's a recommended technique elsewhere (eg Slovakia), especially when on raptor surveys. Also, using a squeaker in southern Spain does attract the interest of some species.

In general, birds seem to have developed the precautionary principle through evolutionary pressures. Indviduals learn locations of reduced risk, presumably sometimes through territorial acquisition, and so a garden, for example, where there is no threat, a bird that is subordinate to others occupying prime habitat elsewhere, may have learnt by accident that a degree of confiding in humans in that location is low-risk behaviour.

Hand-reared birds may be more at risk because they do not associate low-risk behaviour with a location, but with humans; they also may not recognise risk from such as cats: witness early attempts to raise bustards in Saudi Arabia - released birds walked up to foxes to make friends...
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Old Monday 18th February 2013, 09:45   #20
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How wary birds can be often depends on how frequently they come in contact with humans. The blackbirds in my garden will let me aproach to within a few feet and yet the blackbirds in the ancient wood where I work rarely see humans and will flee at 50 yards. Could it be that blackbirds are naturaly wary of humans , but lose this waryness if they are in constant contact with no problems. Similar behaviour can be seen with hunted waterfowl. I know ponds where the ducks are fed by people and will take bread out of your hand . The same birds sometimes fly out to a local saltmarsh where wildfowling takes place and will not allow a human within 200 yards. So these birds have learnt not only where humans are a danger , but also where they are not.

I think most large and medium sized birds have a natural waryness of people and yet can learn to change that behaviour if the threat does not materalise.

In some ways the waryness of birds adds to their magic and makes the times when we do get close views much more rewarding. Pinkfeet are one of the most difficult geese to get close to , but I will never forget one morning on the Wash when I was in a small creek some mile offshore before dawn I was waiting for the geese to flight from the far side of the big channel when some birds fliped low across the channel and landed on my side of it. Despite the starlight I could not see them , but the whole 10,000 flollowed them and at the first glimmer of dawn the flock started to walk towards me. I stayed hidden in the bottom of a steep sided creek as they apeared out of the darkness until I had the whole 10,000 all around me with some less that a yard away. I could have reached out of my creek and touched them as they made a loud buzzing noise above my head. Finaly they started to jump and fly inland. The noise was deafening as they rose in a wave and wet mud splattered my face as they came low overhead. Amazing , made all the more rewarding in that I had manged to be so close to these wary birds without any of them knowing I had been there. The experiance would not have been so good if those birds had been half tame.

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Old Monday 18th February 2013, 10:31   #21
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It would be interesting to do a study, disguising yourself as a herbivore and seeing how much closer you get, compared with the more traditional fieldcraft which seems to involve dressing in green, wearing a hat, and walking slowly..

Herbivore style would include: huge eyes stuck on the side of your head, or walking on all fours, eating grass, panto cow costume etc

I think I'm not the only person who would be very interested in seeing the results, but perhaps less interested in performing the experiment
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Old Monday 18th February 2013, 11:31   #22
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Similar behaviour can be seen with hunted waterfowl. I know ponds where the ducks are fed by people and will take bread out of your hand . The same birds sometimes fly out to a local saltmarsh where wildfowling takes place and will not allow a human within 200 yards. So these birds have learnt not only where humans are a danger , but also where they are not.
They certainly do learn quickly and adapt to each situation accordingly, Non quarry species also seem to quickly learn that the threat isnt aimed at them. I spent most of yesterday surrounded by Shelduck,Eider and Brent regulary within 20-30 yards but the Wigeon, Pintail and Pinkfeet remained little more than specks in the distance through the bins.
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Old Monday 18th February 2013, 20:44   #23
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My two spring visiting Mallard pair turned up in my garden for the first time this year only yesterday. Initially they flew off if I went out of the front door but by this morning all they did was look up from under the feeders and then carry on eating. If I stay about ten feet away from them it's no problem as far as they are concerned. Should I attempt to get closer they quack loudly at me as if to say "stop invading our space" but then usually carry on eating. only if I make a sudden move to them do they eventually and reluctantly fly off.

In any case they soon return and just carry on as if nothing has happened. From previous experience they will soon not bother about me at all and only vanish through the hedge if I start using my noisy motor mower on "their" lawn.

I bet if I had noisy kids or pets around then I would never even get them in the garden at any time.
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Old Monday 18th February 2013, 21:53   #24
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I think they is something fundamentally different about the tameness of UK and European birds. I have visited numerous feeders in the US and Canada, most in rural areas, some in popular national parks ...in virtually all cases, chickadees, nuthatches and assorted others bounce down onto your hand as soon as you get a few sunflowers out. Pretty much the same happens with Sociable Weavers, hornbills and many others in national parks in southern Africa. Rare indeed is this in Europe though, House Sparrows in parks occasionally maybe, but why not at the feeding stations on reserves, etc.


With 'training', I can get Marsh Tits and then Great and Blue Tits to take from my hand at my feeders, but this is really the exception, rather than the rule that seems to exist pondside.
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Old Tuesday 19th February 2013, 04:07   #25
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One thing I have noticed, with local birds: some species seem to be able to recognise specific human beings, and react accordingly, after some time of familiarisation. This is known to be true of crows, but it seems like other birds have the same knack.

For example, there is a bush outside my building, which is always full of song sparrows. I often eat lunch near this bush. The first few times I did this, the birds were noticeably nervous, and some flew away. After a couple of months of frequent lunching and photographing, the birds stopped reacting to my approach. Last week, one of them ran over my foot, while I stood next to the bush, trying to snap a different bird. However, they still freeze or fly when random people approach.

A hummingbird that visits my new feeder has just begun feeding when I am on the balcony, this week, and waited nearby while I changed the food. I have no idea how this bird would react to somebody else's presence, though. I will have to test it in future, and see if its reaction to a stranger is any different.

It seems like the default is, indeed, to view us as a threat, though.
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