The Brambling and the peanut feeder

What fun it has been for the last six years observing the behaviour of visiting birds to my garden. Observational learning is what I have been doing but in my case the reward has been in seeing the variety of bird species arriving in my garden. I guess it’s quite apt that I take a bird break on a high point 🙂

“Observational learning is when one animal can watch the actions of another and learn from those actions. This may be as simple as learning the location of a food source or as complicated as learning a sequence of actions that needs to be taken to earn a reward.

The most famous putative example of observational learning was the spread of the ability to open milk bottles, among blue tits, Parus caeruleus, and European robins, Erithacus rubeculain, in Great Britain. These birds learned to rob cream from the top of milk bottles during the early part of the 20th century, and the blue tits later adapted to the use of aluminum foil seals on the bottles, learning to tear them to access the cream. There are actually two hypotheses which could explain the increase in these behaviors: First, birds might observe other birds feeding in this manner and adopt the behavior. Second, each bird might, independently, discover this feeding option. This second possibility is particularly likely if a bottle opened by one bird serves as a clue to other birds that the bottles are food resources.”


Last week I was entertained for some time by the antics of what I thought was our regular male Brambling as it attempted to feed from a hanging peanut feeder. However, It wasn’t until the weekend when I was doing my Garden Birdwatch count that I spotted there were 3 males and a female around so it is possible that this wasn’t the Brambling seen with a female Reed Bunting during my count.

A group of three peanut feeders in my garden are popular with a wide variety of birds which include Blue tits, Coal tits and Great tits which you might expect. The Great Spotted Woodpecker and Starlings will also feed there getting a good grip on the metal cage and I have seen a Blackbird have a go on occasions.

However the peanut feeders in my garden are a hot spot for finches and Siskins can cover every space available – again fun to watch. I have also seen odd Goldfinches and Greenfinches feed here but never a male Chaffinch – the female Chaffinches could be a maybe.

More recently, perhaps due to no fat balls on offer this winter, House Sparrows are finding the peanut feeders a hot spot and it was groups of them that the male Brambling, shown above, was watching with great interest. Was this an example of Observational Learning?

I would take a guess that yes it could be as the Brambling had other options (much easier) to feed on. Did this Brambling rate the food choice by the House Sparrows as a good one and that is why it wasted energy that it needed on a cold winter’s day attempting to hold on to this feeder? I can only assume so. You have to see him try …

Brambling video, 2min 35sec compilation with background music, try HD quality.

Another assumption I’d make based on my gardenwatch observational learning over the last six years is that garden birds do appreciate the cover of plants especially ones like evergreen shrubs and trees where they can hide from predators. I’m guessing that’s why many people with a new house build garden find their new bird tables unvisited as the new young plants need time to grow. The birds will come.

A garden matures in many ways through use from all its residents. My eldest daughter had just celebrated her first birthday when we moved into this one and through observational learning my garden adapted as my daughters grew. I had great fun with this too.

During February I want to take a look back at the many changes my garden has seen. I do like the idea of a Memory Lane Month and if I get organised enough I might invite other bloggers to join me too. I’ve wanted to do this for some time now. After listening to other bloggers ask how can blogs stay fresh after many years I’ve decided this may be a refreshing spell during a dull month for many who find winter hard and long for summer days.

During March, I will return to the garden birds and wildlife that have distracted me from ironing, other household chores and gardening! It’s been a nice distraction, where I’ve learnt a lot about garden birds. Oh no… my dear garden blogging friends, I’ve not been an expert in this area at all. I have been an observational learner and what fun the last six years have been to share with you all – thank-you for joining me 😀

Wishing you all a great weekend! To my gardening friends, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with you all again soon! To my nature friends, see you in a month (unless something exciting visits the garden). Please do watch the video above as it is for you. Previous posts you might have missed include my birdcount results, snow shelter table and mixed seed trial. Enjoy your Winter visitors and if you are interested in hearing all about Waxwings do pop over to ShySongbird’s Nature News there’s a great post there 😀

This post was published by Shirley for shirls gardenwatch in January 2013.

15 thoughts on “The Brambling and the peanut feeder

  1. Interesting post, as always. Can't wait to get back in the garden. Snow has gone but high winds today. Waterlogged but luckily no flooding.

  2. I guess another possibility is genetic memory!

    I've noticed birds changing their behaviour too. Ground feeding birds like blackbirds pecking at fat balls is a cage on the top fg my feeding station.

    Starlings never used to cling to feeders – their feet just aren't clinging feet but they seem to have mastered this technique.

    Then there is the chaffinch seen this week flapping wings frantically in an attempt to hover and peck fat from the log with holes filled with fat and seeds . Its hanging from a tree. There were far easier pickings.

    Then there are our goldfinches that feed from a feeder set to close if four birds try to feed together. The birds won't tolerate an extra bird trying to land. They seem to have learned 2 birds fine 3 pushing it but 4 birds definitely not!

  3. Hi Shirley and thank you so much for the very kind mention and link…it actually made me jump when I scrolled down to it, just as if someone had leapt out at me 🙂

    Well, what a fascinating post! I think birds are much cleverer than many people give them credit for. The Blue Tits and milk bottles was a very good example of that. Birds certainly are very adaptable. Just the fact they have learnt to eat from hanging feeders is surprising really. I have observed Wood Pigeons dragging a feeder along a branch to enable them to eat from it, you have to admire their ingenuity 🙂

    I enjoyed the Brambling video 🙂 and the collage too. A most interesting post Shirley.

    I hope you enjoy your special February posts, I will pop in when I can and of course will look forward to future wildlife posts 🙂 Have a great weekend!

    P.S. Thank you for retrieving my other post. I have reluctantly reverted to the old but not as versatile browser. I contacted Mercury to let them know of the problem but know that really it is the fault of Blogger/Google who need to recognise more and more people use iPads but don't necessarily want to be stuck with the Safari browser.

  4. Your comments on an earlier blog of mine has left me hopefully of the different species that will eventually visit as my garden matures.
    I must say that I will be looking forward to you reminiscing in future blogs – I do love to see around other peoples gardens – I suppose you could call me nosy. I like it more when I'm inspired, so yes will love to see those blogs!
    My garden has masses of Great tits and Chaffinches this week, usually only get the odd 2 or 3. Even had a sparrow hawk swoop down and capture a starling 🙁

  5. Memory Lane Month sounds interesting! Although as I have only been here 6 years, I am not sure that will be a long enough memory!

    Such a good point about birds needing shelter, we are lucky here as we have huge hedges and vast swathes of ivy growing over the shed roof – it is bird paradise, not to mention shelter from the sparrow hawk.

  6. Great post and good observations! I created a garden with a lot of cover and it is heavy with birds! Several areas are still developing but the birds definitely prefer the cover from the various plants. And they love the peanut butter treats:)….especially on cold days!

  7. I know birds learn by observation. I have seen desperate Cardinals (ground feeders) get on perches of tube feeders and get a seed or two. They can learn. I enjoy reading about your observations. I learn much from them.

  8. Super post, loved your video about your brambling, it made it in the end! I agree, lots of evergreen cover for the birds to hide is essential, its so sad when the sparrowhawk comes and grabs a bird on the feeders.

  9. Hello everyone, thanks for all your comments.This is an interesting one isn’t it? Wishing you all a good weekend 🙂

    L, delighted you enjoyed it. Ah… a soggy brown garden with you. Before you know it you will be out there – enjoy it when you get a chance 🙂

    Diligent Gardener, I guess if our weather was the same every day it would be boring but high winds I could live without. Thanks 🙂

    Sue, yes, I was reading that too. Absolutely agree on changes to all the birds’ behaviour you mention especially the counting Goldfinches! They have all adapted I believe due to the numbers visiting my garden and I do believe there is a strong case for observational learning here – l’ve been watching them 😉

    Jan, you are absolutely welcome! I couldn’t miss out linking to your wished for sighting when it came at a time that I had a surprise visitor too – I know how thrilled I was 😀 Thanks, I agree, on researching I came across a piece saying that the expression of the tiny bird brain suggesting someone was not clever couldn’t be more wrong – bird brains work well! Oh these Woodpigeons get everywhere here and I could easily imagine them dragging a feeder away. Thanks, I was spoilt for choice with clips for the video. It is always tricky choosing which ones, where to start and stop and how long to make them to keep people watching until the end. Although I don’t intend posting on birds during February, I’ll still be taking photos and capturing video of things that catch my eye. I’m delighted you’ll pop in during February. I’m not sitting with draft posts waiting to go so I bet get my thinking hat on and plan which way to take this – that’s what makes it fun. Thanks, wishing you a good weekend too 🙂 No probs, thank-you for pointing out blogger had put your comment in spam.

    Angie, I’m glad, as its true that when a garden matures the birds finding it more to their liking. Oh dear… I hope there’s enough to live up to your expectations then. Ah… once the word gets round about your garden feeders (yes a little birdie will tell the others in their species) you should get lots of Chaffinches – they are Scotland’s top bird in the count. Shame about the Sparrowhawk visit, I used to feel sick when I saw this but after looking at video footage from a man called Dave Culley (search my blog as I’ve posted on him) and email exchanges with him I can see they are just the same as other birds when it comes to survival and are great caring parents. I’m not a complete fan myself but can deal with any visits better now.

  10. Hello everyone, thanks for all your comments.This is an interesting one isn’t it? Wishing you all a good weekend 🙂

    Karen, ah… but you could take this any way you want I was thinking to previous gardens when your boys were growing up – that might be fun. I’ll be scanning pre digital pics and looking through boxes and albums of old photos. I’m also looking out for photos from garden shows and visits that have influenced the plantings in my garden – I think that will be fun too! Yes, hedges and ivy afford the best shelter don’t they – although I have seen a Sparrowhawk dive into our hedge after a bird here :-O

    Rohrerbot, thanks for stopping by and adding this as more proof that cover in a garden makes it attractive to birds. Ah yes… peanut butter goes down very well during winter. Enjoy your winter garden full of its residents 🙂

    Lisa, yes that’s exactly what I’m talking about although Sue does have a good point that in some species behaviour could be genetic. I do believe they can learn too. Thanks, I have learnt so much already by observing and have had fun along the way and I’m sure this will continue 🙂

    Pauline, thanks… yes it made it in the end which was great to be watching. If you had a keen eye you might have noticed the last two clips were darker in lighting as it was towards the end of the day. I haven’t seen it there since but I’ve not been watching as closely 😉 Yes, all cover is good come late Spring and Summer when new fledglings are out but during Winter the evergreen cover is great for the birds to hide and keep out of the cold too. Yes, as I said above to Angie, Sparrowhawk visits are sad but I’ve come to accept that they have to eat too. It is said that if a Sparrowhawk predates your garden then you have a very healthy population there. It’s still sad to see a bird coming to a place you’ve created and coming to an end in this way but that is the way of nature and the cycle of things.

  11. Great photos! I am always amazed how birds can find the feeders. You make a good point about the number of birds and the maturation of the garden. I see more birds – especially those hiding in shrubs – as my garden matures.

  12. Hello to you both and thanks for your comments 🙂

    John, I’m delighted about the variety and pre-blog I would never have imagined so many species and today yet another new visitor 😀

    HolleyGarden, thanks for popping by. I see you you have some wonderful images on your blog and I look forward to browsing soon. I can’t agree more – it is amazing how one bird visiting leads to another too! Absolutely, a large mature must be an absolute haven for bird life 😀

  13. Great to know the — in depth from this blog.This will really help for my forward steps to be taken.

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