Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

April 17, 1910. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 45(29): 8-E.

Teaching or Instinct Which Guides Our Birds

An Interesting Problem to the Students of Nature.

Rushville, Neb., April 4. - To Sandy Griswold, Sporting Editor of the World-Herald: Noting the discussion in the Sunday World-Herald during the closing weeks of winter, as to how birds animals learn, whether by instinct or the instruction of the parents, my study of birds induces me to take the middle of the road, that is in many particulars I agree with both sides. That many birds acquire knowledge by both instinct and tutelage, I have but little doubt.

I have experimented with redwinged blackbirds, bluejays, woodpeckers, flickers, thrushes and other birds, which I took from their nests a week or so before the time they would naturally leave themselves. Without any instruction from parents or older birds they soon left the nests I had improvised for them, hopped about on the cage floor for a while, and presently insisted on clambering upon the perches, to which they cling in the regulation way. Indeed, I noted again and again that the impulse to seek a perch was so strong that the birds seemed to be moved to it by an imperative command. Nor were they long satisfied with a low perch, but instinctly mounted to the highest one they could find.

The same was true in regard to flight. No feathered adult was present to tutor them in the art of using their wings, yet they soon acquired that power of their own accord. It was inborn - the gift of flight. True, they were awkward at first, and gained skill only by degrees, but the original impulse was in their constitution. It is no doubt true that parent birds in the outdoors do teach their young to fly, but if the bantlings were left to themselves, they would acquire that art through their original endowment, although more slowly and with many more hard knocks.

As everyone knows, juvenile birds at first open their mouths for their food. Proof may not be at hand for the opinion, but I am disposed to believe that they never need to be told by their parents to do this; their instincts prompt them. It must be so, I think, for to suppose that the baby bird only a day or two from the shell could understand a parental command to open its mouth would be to presume that it has the instinct to grasp the meaning of such a behest, and that is more difficult to believe than that nature simply impels it to take its food in that way.

My experiments taught me that the notes of birds is wholly a matter of inheritance. For instance, the young red wings that I had, as soon as they reached a sufficient age, chack! chacked! with all the volubility of their kind; the woodpeckers uttered the peculiar noises of their own, and the flickers clung to their own cries. True, these pets may have heard their parents' calls before they were taken from the nest, but it is not at all likely that they would have remembered them, for at first they only "cheeped" after the manner of most bantlings, and only a good while afterward did they fall to using the adult chirp. Besides, while still in the nest, they must have heard many other bird calls; why did they not acquire them? Heredity has laid a strong hand upon birds, and has drawn a sharp dividing line among the various species.

Instinct also plays a large part in moving the bird to sing and to render the peculiar arias of its kind. For instance, a pet woodthrush of mine, secured at an early age and kept far away from all his kith of the wildwood, became a fine musician. And what do you suppose was the tune he executed. It was the sweet, dreamy, somewhat labored song of the woodthrush in native wilds. He never sang any other tune. I think he sang it better than any wild thrush I have ever heard. It was louder, clearer, more full-toned, but the quality of voice and the technique were precisely the same. Who was his teacher? No one but nature, heredity, instinct, whatever you choose to call it. There was no wild thrush within a half mile of his cage.

The case of a pet thrasher was almost as striking. It is true, he may have heard several of his kin singing about the premises during the first spring of his captivity, but it is not probable that he learned their melodies so early in life. As the next spring approached, he began to sing the very medleys that the wild thrashers sing with so much earnestness and skill, and this was long before any thrashers had come back from the south.

I must now describe several cases in which inherited instinct did not prove so true a teacher. A young robin was once given me by a friend, and was kept by myself and others until the following summer. Strange as it may seem, he never acquired the well known robin carol. Sometimes there were vague hints of it in his vocal performances, but for the most part he whistled runs in a loud, shrill tone that no wild robin ever dreamed of inflicting on the world. They were more like crude human efforts at whistling than anything else. Indeed, I think they were picked up from the whistling he heard about the house. Some of his strains were very sweet, and all of them were wonderful for a bird.

These facts, I think, prove that birds know and acquire things through the promptings of instinct, while other things, like the flying of young crows, they learn only by avian teaching. - L. L. B.