Birds have extraordinary capabilities – very different in many ways from mammals, and all aimed at flying efficiently, keeping safe, getting food, and reproducing. We used to think of bird brains as the lowest thinking machines in vertebrate life, but in fact, birds are extremely intelligent, each species finely tuned for its role in its habitat. Crows, parrots, pigeons, and other species have been recorded performing as well as primates on various tests. The tests revealed subtle learning in these feathered miracles. And this has changed our tendency to think of birds as having all their behavior hard-wired like automatons. Driven entirely by a phenomenon, long considered much lower than our learning patterns, called “instinct.”
I teach classes about raptors – and one of the first things I point out about behavior has to do with “instinct.” We all have some behavior that is instinctive, that is, not specifically learned. Yes, even humans. Instinctive behaviors are part of a developmental process. As the individual animal matures, certain classes of behavior and development are triggered at certain times, usually with the timed release of certain chemicals. For these developmental triggers to be effective, there is often a window of opportunity in which these vital behaviors can click on and begin to mature. In people, language development is one such. It is now accepted fact that if humans do not hear language and are not spoken to as infants, after a certain period, they will simply not be able to learn to speak. The language button has not been activated and the opportunity has been lost. That individual will never speak a language, will never be able to communicate verbally with another person. Indeed children so deprived usually do not survive very long.
In birds, many more behaviors are part of a developmental system and need to be “turned on” at the appropriate time. When a very young chick (the age varies with species) is first aware of the creature feeding it, it will identify itself with that creature. Ducklings have imprinted on humans or chickens, and so on. In raptors, the critical time is some days after hatching. With some, it is when the eyes open and the chick can see the parent come up with food. With owls, whose hearing is vital to their survival, the chicks can imprint on a human voice in the absence of a parental owl conversation.
Birds imprint on parents, later on siblings, on the nest, and even on the natal area (young birds often return to hatch area to breed). These “sets” help with social development, including breeding behavior. A bird mal-imprinted on humans, rather than properly imprinted on their own kind, will seek human breeding partners. They will not be able to properly reproduce. Some birds that are raised in captivity often imprint on humans for food and yet, when put in with other youngsters of its kind, avoid other behavioral missteps. Sometimes this imprinting takes place later – a young raptor for instance raised in a chamber even with other young raptors and with an adult as a model, can still get food aggressive with a human who is working with him – he will scream at that person demanding food (as he would of a parent at the same age in the wild – there’s a reason the adults drive teenagers away from their territory!). In all other respects, the youngster may have developed normal social behavior, however, and if put into a flight cage and tossed food, he may well “wild up.”
Instinctive behavior is very complex. In classes for grade schoolers, I like to say that instinctive learning means that the bird is born with an encyclopedia in his brain, ready to supply needed information and habits when they are properly triggered.