Certain insectivorous birds, such as the painted redstart (Myioborus pictus), undertake flush pursuit – a characteristic display that elicits an escape reaction by an insect, which the bird then chases in the air and eats. This account describes experiments showing that flush pursuit uses visual displays, which are likely to exploit an ancient neural circuit in dipteran insects, the visual systems of which are well documented as detecting looming stimuli and triggering an escape responses. Using models that decompose components of the redstart display, specific elements of the display were analyzed for their contribution in triggering visually induced escape behavior by dipterous insects. Elements tested were pivoting body movements, patterning on the spread tail and wings, and visual contrast of model redstarts against pale and dark backgrounds. We show that contrasting patterns within the plumage are crucial to foraging success, as is contrast of the bird against a background. Visual motion also significantly contributes to the successful flushing. In contrast, unpatterned models and patterned models that do not contrast with the background are less successful in eliciting escape responses of flies. Natural visual stimuli provided by Myioborus pictus are similar to those known to trigger looming and time-to-collision neurons in the escape circuits of flies and other insects, such as orthopterans. We propose that the tuning properties of these neural pathways might have contributed to the evolution of foraging displays in flush-pursuing birds.

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