William Feeney

ScienceShot: A Bird Version of Neighborhood Watch

When cuckoos start hanging around the nests of superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus), pint-sized songbirds in Australia, the wrens need to act quickly. Otherwise, the cuckoo will lay eggs in their nests, giving rise to chicks, which the wrens tend, even as the interlopers push the wrens' own offspring out. But how are wrens that have never seen a cuckoo before able to recognize the threat? According to a study published today in Biology Letters, they rely on their more knowledgeable family members. Researchers identified both naive and "cuckoo-experienced" individuals in family groups and placed a freeze-dried specimen of a shining-bronze cuckoo inside a camouflaged cage 2 meters away from a nest. When a naive fairy-wren was alone near the nest, the scientists drew back the camouflage with a hidden chord and exposed the perched cuckoo. Not one of the 11 naive birds that they tested made so much as a peep when they saw the cuckoo. But after the newbies watched experienced birds respond to the cuckoo model, mobbing it and shouting alarm calls, they joined in the attack (as the previously naive blue male superb fairy-wren is doing after learning from the brown female in the photo above). It took only one exposure to the actions of the more knowledgeable birds for the innocent ones to change their behavior, the scientists report. This kind of speedy social learning typically occurs, they note, when you can count on others of your kind to give reliable signals, and when the cost of learning something on your own is exorbitant—which is surely the case for any cuckoo-parasitized songbird.

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Posted in Plants & Animals