Birds come in all shapes and sizes and occupy almost all of the earth's habitats. Some birds are lucky enough to hold the upper levels of the food chain, but most species have at least one major predator to worry about.
These predators include mammals, reptiles, fish, and even other birds. Most birds have little in the way of protection in a head-to-head fight, so how do they keep safe?
Birds rely on avoidance as their primary means of defense. Flight is a highly efficient way of escaping ground-based predators, but birds can also run or swim away from danger. Escaping danger in time is only possible if the bird is able to notice and identify the threat, however, and this is where the birds' keen senses of sight and hearing come into play.
Birds have a wide variety of strategies for avoiding predators, ranging from outright speed to displays of intimidation and even trickery. Birds also protect each other by using alarm calls which alert the other birds in the area to the presence of danger.
Read this article to learn more about how birds survive in a world full of predators, some of their methods are truly ingenious!
Pheasants are a prime example who usually run away from predators with flight being a last resort
Birds have a multitude of different techniques for avoiding predators. These depend on the physical abilities of the bird, the types of predators it has evolved to evade, and the environment where it lives. Birds use their keen senses to detect predators in time to escape, but some species go a step further and use remarkable camouflage and stealth to remain unseen.
Read along to learn about the various methods that birds use to stay safe.
Birds are the fastest-moving animals on earth. Their speed is a huge benefit to them in evading predators, but their ability to overcome gravity is just as important when escaping ground hunters.
Ironically, the fastest flying birds (peregrine falcons) are specialist hunters of other birds. Birds will perform maneuvers like climbing, turning, and diving in order to evade falcons, but often the best way for birds to escape aerial hunters is to get out of the air. Birds will fly into dense cover or even onto water to escape a hunting hawk or falcon.
Little Ringed Plover taking off
Social birds like European starlings that occur in huge flocks have the power of numbers. This benefits them in two main ways. Firstly, the more birds there are, the greater the chance of one of them spotting the danger and sounding the alarm. Secondly, even if the predator is able to make a kill, the chance of being caught is much smaller.
The benefits of flocking are easy to see when you look at the numbers. In a flock of 1,000 starlings, for example, there are 1,000 pairs of eyes and ears to detect a hawk, and the chances of being caught by that hawk are just 1 in 1,000.
Many birds are admired for their bright colors, but showing off can also land them in trouble by making them so noticeable to their enemies. Detecting predators and escaping them are both effective strategies, but there is another, even better method for staying safe.
Many birds make use of cryptic coloration to blend in with their environment. In this way, well-camouflaged birds can go unseen by their predators a lot of the time. Well, camouflaged ground birds like grouse and quails often sit completely still when a predator is nearby because movement is easy to spot.
Quails have cryptic colorations that help them blend in with their natural habitat to help avoid the eyes of predators
Waterbirds have a great advantage against many predators because they can escape to several different environments. They can often swim fast, and even dive under the water to escape attacks from above.
Fleeing to the safety of open water is a great way to escape from land predators like coyotes, but they can also escape to dry land to avoid aquatic hunters like otters and alligators. If all else fails, these versatile birds can always take to the air.
Before a bird can try to escape from a predator, it first needs to identify the threat. Birds have incredibly sharp eyesight, color vision, and a very wide field of view. Birds have finely tuned hearing as well, even though they do not have large external ears.
Birds instinctually know when they are most at risk, so they tend to be especially alert when they are drinking, feeding, and incubating eggs.
Most ground predators have evolved to make use of stealth to catch birds by surprise because they cannot hope to catch a flying bird. Aerial predators like hawks also use stealth to keep their prey from getting a head start.
Golden Eagle hunting pigeons
Birds of different species will often band together to see off a common enemy. If a crow, opossum, or snake attempts to raid the nest of a songbird, the bird’s alarm call will often bring in a rowdy group of ‘concerned citizens’ that will join in at mobbing the predator.
Birds are highly vocal creatures. Most species can make a range of calls, each with different meanings.
Most calls and songs are made for the benefit of other members of a bird's own species, that is, for attracting a mate, keeping contact with a partner, or chasing off a rival. Birds can also communicate with other bird species, however.
Many birds produce distinct alarm calls. These calls clearly indicate agitation and stress, and other birds easily recognize their meaning. If a songbird detects a threat like a snake or some other ground-based carnivore, they will often sound the alarm and soon a party of many different birds will arrive to see what all the excitement is about.
Barn Swallow calling whilst perched
Birds migrate to avoid the challenges of winter. Not only is winter a cold time of year but food resources tend to become very scarce. Insects disappear, and seeds can be covered in a layer of snow. Water sources also freeze over, and in the far north, the days get really short.
Migrating actually puts birds at increased risk from some predators, but they must face these challenges head-on to reach their warmer overwintering grounds.
Birds protect their babies primarily by building their nests in safe, sheltered locations that are inaccessible to predators. Many birds also lay camouflaged eggs that are difficult for predators to see.
As much as a parent bird may wish to protect its offspring, they understand that they must save themselves as a priority because they can always raise another family.
Nevertheless, birds that are equipped to fight are often willing to tackle threats head-on. Getting too close to the nest of a northern goshawk, for example, can be a risky business!
Geese and swans can also be formidable when protecting their young. Even small, defenseless birds can be very bold when defending their chicks, however.
Some birds have ingenious ways of protecting their young. Nesting killdeers put on an exaggerated display of being injured when a predator gets too close to their chicks.
This ruse works because the predator sees the parent bird as an easy meal and pursues it. The parent will lead the predator away while giving the babies a chance to find cover. Pretty smart!
A loon guarding its nest
Have you ever seen a little bird attacking a much larger bird? This behavior is known as mobbing, and it seems like a very dangerous activity!
Birds mob larger birds that they see as threats.
Owls, for example, can be mobbed relentlessly by songbirds if they are discovered during the day. Hawks and eagles often suffer the same fate, although agile bird hunters like falcons and accipiters are usually left well alone!
Birds mob predators like hawks to chase them away from their territories and nesting areas. By mobbing the enemy, they are sending a clear message that the predator has lost any chance of catching its prey by surprise, and so attempting to hunt in the area would be a futile and pretty unpleasant thing to do.
A Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) being harassed (mobbed) by a Pied Crow
Crows are highly observant and intelligent birds. They are pretty robust and have large claws and bills, although they prefer to avoid their predators altogether. They frequently form flocks that benefit from safety in numbers and they are not afraid to mob predators like hawks and eagles.
Parrots have sharp, powerful bills that can inflict pretty nasty wounds. They will always flee from danger when given the opportunity, however. Most parrots are highly social and occur in flocks. This benefits them because they have more eyes and ears open to detect predators.
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