What The Habits Of Wild Birds Can Teach Us


Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoo. The youngest/newest member of my local wild flock.

There is a golden rule for Wildlife Rescuers in Australia. When you rescue an animal and rehabilitate it for release, it must be released back to the location where it was originally found. It’s actually illegal to release it anywhere else without a written exemption from the appropriate governing body. If you can’t release back to the original site and can’t get permission for an exemption then the animal is usually euthanized. It sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? But there are some very good reasons behind it. 

The first and most obvious reason is to prevent the spread of disease. Many diseases in our wildlife aren’t obvious and won’t show up in the time an animal is in care. It would be quite easy to accidentally release a diseased animal into a new location that has a healthy population, effectively compromising that healthy population.


Musk Lorikeet. Nearly impossible to spot in the wild unless you know where they are.

Considering that most diseases that are in the wild population are pretty widespread now, many argue that it won’t be the end of the world if they release the animal at the most convenient place for the rescuer/rehabilitator. This frustrates me because disease is not the only reason for these laws. The animal’s survival may well depend on where it is released. If you don’t release an animal where it was originally found, you may well be sentencing the animal to a cruel death. 

There’s nothing quite like freaking out a passenger in your car with “crazy” behaviour. The other day I was driving along a local road when I saw a small flock of galahs (Rosebreasted Cockatoos) eating grass on the side of the road. To my passenger’s horror, I quickly pulled over and started to haul out my wildlife nets, while pulling on a safety vest. As my passenger said, they were just eating grass – there was nothing wrong with those birds. We were late, what did I think I was doing? I answered with: “Something is wrong, one of the males is missing!” My passenger was meanwhile demanding to know how I could possibly know that


Wild galahs/Rosebreasted Cockatoos foraging on the side of a road.

Now in hindsight, yeah I looked like a lunatic. Galahs basically look the same from a distance. So to the average person, one missing out of the flock is not noticeable, let alone what sex the missing bird is. To me though, I drive past these birds daily. They’re in roughly the same place at the same time. So it wasn’t a shock to me to find that the male was sitting nearby, dazed (hit by a car) and unable to fly. To my passenger, I appeared oddly telepathic and she remains convinced that I’m some strange “freak that talks to animals”.   The galah wasn’t in view of the road, so rescue had been unlikely. Except that, he should have been with his flock and I knew that much of his routine, so realised that there was something wrong. I took him to the vet, after treatment I took him to a wildlife carer for rehabilitation – he will eventually be released where he was found. 


Females have red/light eyes, males have dark eyes. So in this case the female is on the right.

It’s a happy ending (unusual for a lot of wildlife rescue work). It’s also a more common story than you might think. When we think of wild birds, we think of them having the ability to fly wherever they want, whenever they want eating whatever they want. We don’t usually think of them as having a strict routine that results in them being in certain locations at certain times.

For anyone involved in wild bird rescue, it’s extremely useful to understand that wild birds do have routines. I have lost count of the number of telephone calls that have come in to wildlife rescue with someone saying: “I saw this bird with an injured leg, but it flew off!!!…” Asking the person what time they saw the bird then making sure I’m there at that time the next day with my nets on hand, has resulted in more than one successful capture.


Wild Corella flock. This flock is almost always in the area but returns to these trees to roost at night. This particular group are notorious for throwing twigs and nuts at humans in this park. That doesn't sound scary in itself but there are hundreds of members in this one flock and that many nuts coming at you - well you find yourself wishing for a helmet and safety goggles!

That’s not to say that every single day in a wild bird’s life is the same. It’s not. Their routine will change, but there will be a reason behind the change. For example, there is a flock of seven Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos that I see frequently. For several weeks they were turning up at approximately 3pm every day in the pine trees near my house. Gradually they started coming later. Then they stopped turning up at all and I now see them in a local park at that time. They visit a location until they exhaust the food source that they are working through. They show up later as they search surrounding areas for a new food source. They come back at the same time every year. It’s a routine that helps them to survive. 


Adult Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoo

In terms of wildlife rescue, this highlights that a bird is more likely to find its bearings and flock if it knows where it is. THAT is why a rehabilitated bird should be released where it was found. A bird depends on its flock for survival. It knows exactly where it is, and its presence somewhere should not be thought of as random. Deprive it of that and you increase its chances of being killed by a predator and make it that much harder for it to find its known current food sources. Place it where it knows and it has a much higher chance of rejoining its flock.  It will know roughly where its flock is at what time. 


The lookout is watching that I don't get too close to the nearby feeding juvenile... 

In terms of pet birds, this tells us that birds instinctually seem to look for a routine. They may actually link a routine to their survival. It is extremely handy to know that the presence of a routine isn’t unnatural and can be used to reduce stress in a bird. It’s also worth thinking about how changes in a routine can cause stress. As an example, I bring my birds in at night – if I am suddenly late bringing them in I’ll see all sorts of signs of agitation. My birds will pace, will scream, they will also be more inclined to bite in this state. Fortunately it is extremely rare for me to be late, so I’m happy to allow them that routine. If I need to change it, I do it gradually (so not in one hit) and the birds adjust to that quite happily.

There are many aspects to a routine. A routine can be anything from cage and perch placement, to when, where and how you present your bird’s food. Some variation is a good idea, but too fast and your bird can crack it. If your bird is showing signs of stress – your routine might be something you can look at controlling to fix that. As creatures of habit, a bird really can freak out when you move its cage 50cm to the left and it may not be your imagination when your bird seems to take exception to the presence of your new couch.


Wild Musk Lorikeet enjoying some flowering eucalyptus.

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.

1 comment


Interesting thoughts about routines. I have two birds, one a 2 year old blue front Amazon and the second a 4 month old CAG. My husband takes the Amazon into his grade 3/4 class and I take our CAG into my JK classroom every day. They travel at least one hour round trip each day in their travel cages and then spend most of the day in class in a large cage. A “regular” day in the life of a teacher does not exist but both birds are well adjusted and vet checked healthy. I suppose within a busy day, they do have a routine, but the subtle changes you mention about cage placement etc can’t even be entertained. We take them both wherever we go when appropriate too. I was concerned the Grey may be a bit nervous aground 22 3-4 year olds, but my breeder said it is pretty much whatever they are exposed to in trusting relationships that they adjust to. I have had the CAG since he was 1 month old. I guess, in my limited experience, I have found changes in routine may make for a bird who is flexible and handles daily change easily.


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