How do birds know which species they are?

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Subject: How do birds know which species they are?
From: "Tony Lawson" <>
Date: Tue, 16 Jun 2009 16:37:34 +1000

Q. How do birds know which species they are? That is, how do they recognize one another so they can flock together?

A. Depending on the circumstances, birds can recognize one another by a complex menu of plumage, shape, behavior and especially song, but it is not always so important to them to make the call, said Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.

Some birds that a human could not distinguish by sight as belonging to different species can recognize one another by subtle differences in song, Mr. McGowan said, and other species engage in elaborate and distinctive courtship displays when mating. But for many species, at times it doesn?t matter, he said. Flocks of ducks or geese can contain members of several distinct species, for example, and if they are confronted by a predatory hawk or a hunter, they all take off together.

If an individual bird is lost, Mr. McGowan said, in some species the lost member ?will make do with something else and hang out with that species.? He compared the situation to a person walking down a strange street: ?He would prefer to be with family, but if he recognizes the next best thing, he is happy to walk along with them.?

But when the time comes for breeding, the individual bird will try hard to find a member of the same species, through song or strut.


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