Birds and How They Learn
So far I have been attempting to describe some simple aspects of instinctive behaviour but birds are capable of a little learning. This has been defined by Professor W.H. Thorpe as ‘the process which manifests itself by adaptive changes in individual behaviour as a result of experience’. Professor Thorpe’s book Learning and Instinct in Animals published by Methuen, although very largely about birds covers the whole animal field and for a beginner is somewhat technical. He classifies the types of learning into six main headings: habituation, two types of conditioned reflex learning, latent learning, insight learning and imprinting. In habituation, the instinctive response to a mild and relatively simple stimulus, especially one which warns of danger, wanes as the stimulus continues for long periods without unfavourable results. For instance, an ordinary scarecrow may frighten birds from your cabbage patch for a short time but very soon they will learn that the scarecrow does them no harm. Habituation might be said to keep instincts relevant so that they become more useful.
The term conditioned reflex is usually associated with the Russian physiologist I. P. Pavlov. In the first type of conditioned reflex, an animal learns to respond to a new stimulus for some form of reward. Birds learn to avoid black and orange cinnamon caterpillars after one or two attempts to eat them have revealed their bitter taste. The second type of conditioned reflex is the trial and error type. A young bird may be searching for food and by chance it discovers in pecking at various objects rather haphazardly something which is edible and therefore there is a greater tendency to peck at similar-looking objects. An older bird may learn that an adequate source of food has become available and watches for it to appear. Professor Thorpe mentions the Greenfinch’s habit of watching for Daphne mezereum berries.
Professor Thorpe defines latent learning as the association of indifferent stimuli or situations without an obvious reward. Perhaps an example of this is the bird’s initial exploration of its territory and habitat when it first returns in spring. It learns where there is food and shelter and perhaps, in some cases, where there are potential nest sites. The bird is really taking notice of what is going on in its environment.
The next type is insight learning. It is thought that birds and higher animals can form ideas and use reason which enables them to solve problems very rapidly. Insight learning involves the production of a new adaptive response as a result of insight which indicates an appreciation or apprehension of the relationships of various objects.
Imprinting usually concerns learning in young animals at a highly sensitive period in their development, when they are receiving the first stimuli from the outside world. Konrad Lorenz argued that during a brief period after a bird has hatched the image of a bird’s parents or an object that meets its eye in this period is imprinted on the bird’s mind so that it will always know its own species. In a classic experiment geese which were hatched from artificially incubated eggs accepted Lorenz and his workers as their parents and followed them as they would have followed their parents.
Migration and ringing
- Birds: Feather Maintenance (birdwatchtips.info)
- How Birds Move and Fly (birdwatchtips.info)
- Birdwatching: The Five Senses (birdwatchtips.info)