How The Hen House Turns—Bird Minds

Lucy and Bobbi at a stock tank. Courtesy photo
How the Hen House Turns—Bird Minds
By Cary Neeper

While watching our turkey, Little Bear, march across the backyard, it wasn’t difficult to believe that birds descended from dinosaurs. Little Bear (Turkey2) looked like a miniature T-Rex with her long neck stretching forward from a round body balanced over two long legs.

When I stretched out a hand filled with cracked corn, and she would rush over to snatch up the treat. Her gustatory preferences always surprised me. Why did she find dried corn kernels so delicious? They tasted like..well…nothing to me. They didn’t even smell. But then, I’m a mammal, not a bird.

Birds are not built like mammals. Even their brains are different. They have a lump we don’t have. That’s why scrub jays can remember where they’ve hidden thousands of peanuts. Birds, however, don’t have a corpus callosum, as we do, so they have difficulty transferring information from their right eye to their left.

Newly hatched ducklings in an University of Oxford experiment were blindfolded on one eye and didn’t seem to recognize their mother when their blindfold was switched to the other eye.

We are so different from birds that it’s hard to imagine how Frigate birds can stay aloft so long. Even juveniles fly for months at a time. They don’t even stop circling to land on handy islands scattered in the Indian Ocean. (See Audubon Magazine, Winter 2016.) It seems that their feathers are not waterproof, so they must stay aloft and watch for flying fish leaping into the air as the flying fish escape tuna feeding on them from below.

Given our differences, it’s amazing how well we manage to communicate. In earlier articles here, I’ve described how our ducks related with soft quaking sounds to ask that I dig for a trowel of wet mud and worms. Chickens related with a soft “cluck cluck” in greeting, and an irritated fluffing of turkey feathers told me I had stayed in the pen too long.

Even more amazing is the way our daughter’s parrot communicates. The article “Bird Body Language 101” from fills an entire page of small print. Body language makes the most sense to parrots. Vocalizations come next. Like us, they have a dominant “hand,” usually the right one (their foot).

Parrot feathers say a lot. If they’re smooth and the bird is standing tall, she is “wary or frightened.” Loose fluffy feathers signal contentment or a happy greeting. Flared feathers signal aggression. Extending one wing and a leg is a feel-good signal. A request for petting is a lowered head or a fanning of facial feathers. Standing on one foot can mean it’s naptime.

All this reminds me of the horse signals we reviewed a few months ago—clear signals in the ears, tail and mouth, not unlike the signals we humans send when we’re not faking it.