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Bird and Animal Behaviour

This article looks at animal behaviour to humans and what we can do to be able to photograph them. 

Wildlife reactions to us

Some wildlife is tame, for example common garden birds. Some hardly notice your existence, such as butterflies, bees, and most bugs. A very wide variety will quickly get used to anything that is static and does not move a lot, for example a garden shed, swinging garden seat with cover over, child's tent, caravan or parked cars.

If you don't hide, but stay reasonably still and quiet, a wide variety of birds and animals will, within a reasonable short time, get to realise that you are not a danger to them, and if you put out food for them, they will of course be attracted far faster. Some animals will run away when they first encounter you, but if after several encounters you never gave chase or did anything to harm them then they will get nearer to you. Often younger ones are more daring, as are those that are hungrier.

A Deer

For a period we lived in a country farmhouse, the last house in a village, about 5 miles north of Cheltenham. While there we encouraged a wide range of wildlife into the garden, we had two feeding stations, near to windows on two sides of the house, and took a lot of wildlife photos. Before we put up the feeding stations we saw quite a few birds, but once we put them up the number and variety increased rapidly. The garden of the farmhouse was a part of an ancient orchard, and had a range of large trees. Behind us was a steam railway and beyond that a hill with a lot of woodland, and across the road, fields, a mixture of green fields and nearer to us cereal growing crops.

When birds see something that they feel may be a predator, some just take flight, while many instead just keep it in sight. This is how the duck decoys work, a small fox like dog is led along a bank and the ducks keep it in sight, swimming into a tunnel trap. When you walk through woodland or just go into your garden, some birds will move around so as to keep you in sight, and if you sit down, and stay still, some will come closer to see what you are up to, and what you are, before deciding if to leave or not. Others just hide, they have a territory, and they don't want to give this up, or enter another territory, and if you are in their territory they just stay out of sight, but usually will keep an eye on you. In many cases you will notice that of a pair you see only one at a time, but if you look around you will often find the other is in a good position keeping watch. Over a period they come to trust you, and I found that very many birds would come very near me, and I regularly had a number of partridges and pheasants around my feet, and woodpeckers brought their young to be fed next to me. Not all birds are the same, some species are far more timid and take flight at a far earlier point and individual birds have their own personalities so while one of a pair may allow you close enough to touch it, its mate may run around in a large circle or keep a greater distance away.

I discovered that having birds around attracted more birds, including species that did not feed from the food provided. In some cases you did get a single bird one day, but after it went off to roost overnight it brought back a small group the following day, often made up of several pairs.

Information appears to get around, and they seem to make some sense of what they had seen. Birds occasionally flew into the house windows and were then stunned by this, so you could go and pick them up and check them over, before putting them somewhere safe for them to recover. Doing this is not a cause of concern to the other birds. Even on one occasion where I took an injured bird around to the garden and placed it under the feeder, and a larger bird decided to then make a meal of it, the other birds  did not react differently to me. One day however a green woodpecker flew out of the garden and directly into the side of a passing coach, which killed it. These shy birds are difficult to get very close to, so I was interested in taking a closer look, and like anything that died or was killed in the garden, I put it in the wooded area near the railway, as for something or other it was a meal. However some birds must have seen this and it caused concern as for about a week after, although the birds came and fed in the garden, none of any species would allow me to get anywhere near them. Over a few weeks it got back to normal.

Flying Geese

We had many mammals as well, a vast number of rabbits lived in the railway embankment and they would regularly visit the garden, bringing their young with them, different types of mice, rats, squirrels, a fox occasionally and most nights we were visited by badgers, who liked to clean up behind the birds. The squirrels moved into one of our trees so we had baby squirrels and the badgers brought the whole family to play and fight on the lawn. Rabbits of course have many young throughout the year. In addition we had bats in the porch and barn, voles and shrews, plus just occasionally saw a stoat or weasel but not close enough or for long enough to determine which.

At night you could watch the bats, see owls hunting and of course look out for the badgers.

I didn't wear the same clothes or use camouflage generally in the garden. On odd occasions when I put on camo clothing, and went out the birds all took flight. Not surprising I suppose when you consider that many of the local farmers shot game birds, rabbits etc. When there was shooting going on, a lot of the birds would fly into our garden, including many that did not regularly visit us.

I like most creatures but we did need to control rats as they could do damage to the buildings, and any mice that got into the house, also needed to be trapped. Rats I found, both there and at other properties I had previously, are extremely bright, and are very difficult to trap. I had a humane trap that was supposed to be able to trap rats but none ever fell for this. You can catch mice in bated snap traps, but rats won't generally go near them. The rats became tame in one of our barns and when I went in there they would come out on to the roof rafters and watch me, and also raid the bird feeders.  I have no problem with killing rats but I didn't want to injure one and for it to go away and suffer, so I decided to fire water pistols at them, just knocking them over. They got the message and all moved out.

Of course if you're not lucky enough to have a garden to be able to do this, or if away from your natural environment you want to be able to photograph wildlife then it may be necessary to invest in some camouflage items such as hides which can hide both you and your camera, but also camouflage clothing which can help you to blend in with the natural surroundings and therefore not be as visible to the wildlife. However this is not always successful some birds are not always confident with the camouflage monster moving around in it's habitat. See our article Hides and Camouflage for a more detailed look at this.


See Also

Wildlife photography

Equipment suitable for wildlife photography

Hides and Camouflage

General tips on photographing wildlife

Introducing Birds

Where to Photograph UK Wild Birds

Squirrels and How to Photograph Them

Where to photograph Red Squirrels


By: Keith Park Section: Key:

Page Ref: animal_behaviour

Topic: Wildlife Last Updated: 03/2010

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