Amazing Migration Survival Tactics

Ongoing ornithological research continues to confirm what keen bird-watchers have suspected all along – their feathered friends are highly intelligent and adaptive, with an amazing array of communication skills. A new study conducted by researchers at Queen’s University in Washington has revealed that migrating songbirds rely on the behavior of local resident birds to assist them in avoiding predators during migration.

Migrating birds face many potentially dangerous situations during their annual journey and sadly, many don’t make it. Avoiding predators when flying through unfamiliar territory would substantially increase a bird’s chances of arriving at its destination safely. However, to be in a position to avoid predators, a migrating bird needs to be able to establish exactly what its predators are. This is where the behavior of the local bird population proves invaluable.

The Queen’s University research project involved testing whether migratory songbirds note, and respond to, the anti-predator behavior of local birds. A common method of chasing off predators is known as “mobbing”. Once a potential predator has been identified, a number of birds will approach and rapidly change their positions around its location, while at the same time flapping their wings, twitching their tails and emitting load alarmed calls.

Recognizing that migratory birds seldom participate in mobs, researchers wanted to establish if they gain information with regard to the location, identity and degree of threat of a predator by listening to mobbing calls of local bird species. A test was carried out on birds migrating between Canada and Belize, whereby researchers broadcast playbacks of the alarm calls of the black-capped chickadee which is common in North America and therefore familiar, as well as the blue-gray tanager which is common in Central America and therefore unfamiliar to the migrating birds.

The results of this test showed that birds resident in Belize responded only to the tanager calls, whereas migrant birds responded to the tanager and chickadee calls. Queen’s University biology professor Dr. Laurene Ratcliffe, said that the results of the test present the first evidence that migrating birds take note of the anti-predator behavior of local birds during migration, and use this information to their advantage.