Living with an animal allows a unique insight into behaviour that would often go unseen, equally, it also allows behaviour to be seen in a unique context and with minimal outside interference.
One such behaviour is the flight intention movements of pigeons. The term ‘flight intention’ was coined by Lorenz, but now isn’t used as regularly as some believe the phrase implies too much concious thought. Personally, I question this as, living closely with a pigeon, it is clear that flight intention movements are not used with the regularity and predictability one might expect if they were not under concious control.
A flight intention movement is a ritualised moment or set of movements, used to signal to other birds in a flock that an individual is about to take flight. This allows the other flock members to be aware of who is about to leave and who has no intention of leaving. In that way, if a flock member takes off unexpectedly without having used flight intention movements beforehand, the other flock members will immediately follow. An assumption can be made that the bird that took off in a hurry may have spotted danger and therefore the others should follow its lead to be on the safe side.
Some flight intention-like movements can be seen on fellow blogger ‘Brian Pigeon’s’ blog here:
This got me wondering, what circumstances do pigeons need to use flight intention moments to stop others from flying? An experiment by Davis (1975) showed that birds shocked into rapid flight with an electric plate immediately induced flight in other flock members, however, occasionally unnecessary alarm flight can occur. This may be due to birds failing to read the flight intention movements of a fellow flock member. However, given the complexity of needing to forage, watch for predators and monitor all surrounding birds, it is clear that mistakes must occasionally be made. If these moments are under concious control, do some birds simply forget to give then at the correct times?
This leads me on to the use of vocal alarm calls – from my own experience, pigeons utter an alarm ‘coo’ upon seeing a predator such a bird of prey. This is often combined with a tall and upward stance. Strangely, I have seen this behaviour uttered in response to both aerial predators and ground predators. I had wondered if this sound may have been conveying the message “Danger! But stay put, don’t fly!” but its use on seeing a cat may say otherwise.
I’d love to know if anyone has witnessed the response of other pigeons to this ‘alarm coo’.
J.Michael Davis, Socially induced flight reactions in pigeons, Animal Behaviour, Volume 23, Part 3, August 1975, Pages 597-598,IN7,599-601