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Mockingbirds Recognize Humans

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Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Driving to my son's preschool this week, I spotted a bird on a wire as it lifted up into the air, wings fluttering, and then settled back down. Seeing the white patches in the outspread wings and knowing this was a bird I hadn't seen before, I pulled over to take a closer look with the binocular we keep in the car for precisely that... bird watching. When I rolled down my window, I was amazed by the amount of noise the bird was generating. We are familiar with the piercing call of the European Starlings, and we know the cat-like sound of the Red-Shoulder Hawks that frequent our back yard. Both the sharp single note and the trill of the White-Crowned Sparrow are ubiquitous in our area. This, however, was no ordinary bird song. Instead, after five or six repeats of a sound or call, the bird would lift back up into the air again, fluttering, and then return to the wire to make a new series of calls. Fascinated, we watched for a bit, uncertain whether the activity was typical or in response to something that had happened that morning. Over the next three days, however, the bird was there on the wire each morning when we rounded the corner on our way to school, and each morning we witnessed the same hustle of activity and cycling of bird sounds.

As it turns out, the behavior of mockingbirds made the news recently. Results of a University of Florida study suggest that Mockingbirds have the ability to recognize specific humans who "threaten" their nests after only sixty seconds of contact. While one mockingbird may look to us just like another, mockingbirds differentiate between humans. In response to humans they consider a threat or associate with a previous threat, they may fly around, issue warning calls, or even swoop down and graze heads.

The study provides fertile ground for hypothesizing about the survival of birds in urban societies.

With late spring and early summer months often being good for backyard birding, it's a good time of year for classes and students to keep nature journals, make notes and record observations on bird behavior, and even put the scientific method into play. Science Buddies has several science fair project ideas for those interested in birds.


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Preschool children enjoy watching birds and can create bird shape pictures to document their observations by making rubbings. Teachers cut out shapes of birds (familiar to the class) from poster board. The children choose the appropriate color crayons, tape a piece of paper on top of the shape, then rub or "wipe" the page with the crayons to reveal the shape.

Read more about it at the National Science Teachers Association Early Years blog at http://blogs.nsta.org/EarlyYearsBlog/default.aspx and contribute your ideas as comments.

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