Readers’ wildlife photos

Besides our weekly “Ducks” and “Faux Ducks” features, I also have a backlog of bird photos by biologist John Avise.  They are usually themed, and today’s theme is “Sky-gazing.” I’ve indented John’s notes and IDs.

First, the intro:

Sky-gazing

Have you ever wondered why birds so often appear to stare at the sky with one eye?  What I’m talking about is illustrated in the photos below, which depict more than a dozen avian species caught in the act of what I’ll call “sky-gazing”.  All of these pictures were taken near my home in Southern California, and the last one even shows a bird
sky-gazing while in flight.

Why do birds so frequently sky-gaze?

Here are several (non-exclusive) possibilities.  Birds might sky-gaze to:
(a)      scan for aerial predators such as hawks;
(b)      scan for edible prey such as flying insects;
(c)     “check their watches” (i.e., monitor the time of day by noting the sun’s position in the sky, given their latitude);
(d)      check for clouds or weather conditions;
(e)     scan for conspecifics, or competitors;
(f)      multiple or all of the above.

Or maybe it’s none of the above.  For example, perhaps these photos illustrate nothing more than happenstantial head movements caught on camera.  Maybe some of the birds are just daydreaming.  Or, perhaps some of these birds are actually staring at the ground or water from their other eye.  Who knows?  What do you think?  [I suspect the correct answer is (f), but really my favorite hypothesis is (c)].

Whimbrel (Numerius phaeopus):

Hammonds Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii):

Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus):

Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus):

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla):

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps):

Cassin’s Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans):

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura):

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana):

Red-crowned Parrot (Amazona viridigenalis):

Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus):

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis):

Pacific Slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis):

Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri):

White-throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis):

28 Comments

  1. Posted November 11, 2020 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I have noticed birds at our feeders watching the sky while feeding. I’ve always assumed it was to keep watch for predators as our neighborhood is also home to many Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii). It is not unusual to find half eaten bird and small mammal carcasses around. Some are roadkill scavenged by black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which are also very common in my area.

    • Posted November 11, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I’ve noticed that too. In addition, our birds scan the ground for marauding neighbourhood cats!

  2. Posted November 11, 2020 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I’ve noticed this behavior many times while filming birds. The life of a bird is pretty stressful.

  3. hectorburleeives
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Maybe they just think they look cool doing it. They do look pretty cool.

    • eric
      Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Maybe they are questioning why humans act so stupid.

      Tell me some of those don’t say to you: “Trump? Really?”

      • hectorburleeives
        Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        You know crows are certainly saying it. Hahaha!

  4. daniaq
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Nice!! They look so adorable!

  5. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Do birds in cages exhibit this behaviour?

    • eric
      Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure that would be a good test of the ‘watching out for predator’ hypothesis, since the gesture may be instinctive.

      What might be a better test is to see if apex birds of prey with hundreds of generations of evolution as apex predators still do it. If they do, then that might be evidence against ‘watching for predators’ being the main driving force behind the instinct.

      • Graham Martin-Royle
        Posted November 11, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        I wasn’t thinking of any particular reason why they might do this, I just wondered if they lost the habit if they were in an enclosure.

  6. jezgrove
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Great photos – especially the last one.

  7. Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    It looks to me like it’s the -other- eye that is active, and they’re looking at something below them. Wouldn’t it be the same tilt of the head?

    • busterggi
      Posted November 11, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Exactly!

  8. Keith
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I love these fabulous photos! And I’ve always assumed it was to keep watch for predators, but now I really want to know 🙂

  9. Andy
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Nice photos.
    I think I would assume mostly (a – predators) with an element of all of them.
    I would suggest that (a) and (b) are partially testable, based on position in the food chain.
    How do birds that are commonly preyed upon by other birds compare to birds that are not or to those that eat ground-level food?

    • john avise
      Posted November 11, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Yes, and you might also note that three of the photos in my presentation are of flycatchers, who may well be scanning the sky for insects to eat.

      • john avise
        Posted November 11, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        …and, six of the photos are of shorebird species that are frequently preyed upon by Falcons.

  10. Frank Bath
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Good pictures. I thought the link to Red-crowned parrot well worth reading.

  11. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Another possibility – again not mutually exclusive with the others on your list – is that birds in this posture may be turning their ear to the ground. For ground feeding birds such as some of the Turdidae, listening for movements of potential prey items either just beneath the soil surface or within the leaf litter may represent one way of detecting a meal.

    • John avise
      Posted November 11, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      That’s certainly another good hypothesis, especially germane for ground-feeding birds such as the American Robin (in the Turdidae)

  12. Posted November 11, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Interesting ideas! And impressive photos.

  13. Mike
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Do birds with forward-placed eyes and binocular vision (owls, eagles, falcons) also do this? All of the example photos are of birds with laterally-placed eyes. Some of the hypotheses could apply to binocular vision, but not others.

    • john avise
      Posted November 11, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      That’s another very good point. I have no pictures of owls or diurnal raptors in this pose.

  14. Mark R.
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Loved the photos and the theme. It’s interesting that birds adapted to walking on the ground and those adapted to tree-perching display this trait. You’d think it would be more prevalent in birds that frequent the open ground, but apparently not. I like the comment above speculating about binocular vs. laterally placed eyes.

  15. Ben Curtis
    Posted November 11, 2020 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for these beautiful photos.

  16. Posted November 11, 2020 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    How do you know they’re looking up rather than looking down?

  17. Posted November 12, 2020 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    …wonderful!… in some way, one of my favourites of your submissions John!… kinda makes it ‘real’er in a wildlife sense…

    • Posted November 12, 2020 at 4:12 am | Permalink

      …and heartily agree, f), then c)… you have a great sense of humour!…


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