Feigning a broken wing! That’s what certain birds do to keep predators off their young brood

Broken wing display is a ruse employed by certain kinds of birds to distract ground predators and stave off attacks on their brood.

During this behaviour, the bird lets one of its wings go limp so as to mislead the attacker into thinking it is easy prey and moves away from the nest.

Diversionary techniques

A broken wing display is usually accompanied by other diversionary techniques — a fact illustrated by an episode involving a duck with a brood and a hyena in the film Animals Are Beautiful People.

Broken wing display is an exciting sub-category of Nature photography, and a wildlife lensman will give his right arm for capturing a bird engaging in this act. Ramanan Padmanabhan has witnessed two such displays, spread apart by 21 years, through the lens of his camera.

In 1991, a great horned owl at Nanmangalam Reserve Forest clawed at his ear when he tried to take a close look at its chicks. As he was carrying out a serious study of the bird, the photographer kept returning to the nesting site. During one of these visits, the owl made a broken wing display in an open place away from its nest. The wildlife photographer encountered a similar nest-protection act this year — this time by a black winged stilt at the salt pans of Kelambakkam.

In their attempts to deflect attention from their broods, the great horned owl and the black winged stilt combined broken wing displays with other distraction techniques, each different from the other.

Display of instinct

Padmanabhan says, “The great horned owl stretched its wings and went behind a shock of bushes, but stayed within visibility, and the black winged stilt fluttered its wings as it ran over the mud flats — these acts illustrate how unique birds can get while displaying an instinct.”

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