Anyone who has hiked in the woods has probably heard bird alarm calls. When our little feathered friends notice us, or perhaps a canine companion, they squeal and dive into the bushes. Other avians who eavesdrop on their watchful winged neighbors and follow suit, even before they see us coming, according to a new study.
According to a study published this week in the journal Current Biology, at least one species of bird – the superb fairy wren, a beautiful black and blue species found on the east coast of Australia – can learn new cries of alarm without being directly threatened. In one example of “social learning,” the birds learned the alarm by ear, never seeing a predator or the species trigger the alarm, Christina Larson reports to the AP.
Over the past few decades, researchers have learned that these alarm calls are more complex than we thought. Chickadees, for example, can tell the size of an approaching predator by their calls and many species listen to other types of birds, or even chipmunks, to tell if there is a fox or hawk nearby. Cooper in the neighborhood. And it’s not just an innate ability; some birds learn the alarm calls of their neighbors after associating the exclamations with the presence of a predator.
“We previously knew that some animals could translate the meaning of ‘foreign languages’ from other species, but we didn’t know how this ‘language learning’ happened,” said co-author Andrew Radford of the ‘University of Bristol at Larson.
In the study, the researchers looked at the stunning fairy wren, a beautiful black and blue species found on the east coast of Australia. According to a press release, previous studies had shown that the bird was able to learn new alarm calls if exposed to the sight of a predator when exposed to alarm. For this experiment, the researchers made the threat more abstract. At first, they exposed 16 tagged birds at Australia’s National Botanic Gardens in Canberra to new alarm sounds, a computer-generated buzz and a real alarm from the allopatric thornbill, a native bird that wrens don’t respond to. normally.
The troglodytes did not react to any of the noises when first exposed. Then the thornbill alarm was broadcast alongside the familiar alarm calls to small birds for three days, causing them to dive into the bushes. Later, when the thorn beak alarm went off on its own, the birds sought shelter 81% of the time while only seeking shelter 38% of the time when they heard the buzz. computer generated control. Over the next week, the birds again responded strongly to the warning.
This indicates that the wrens were indeed superb, at least in learning, and understood that the call was also an alarm using contextual cues by listening to other birds.
The AP’s Larson explains the process well:
To put it in human terms, it’s as if a person who speaks only English learned that “Achtung” means “caution” or “danger” in German simply by listening to people shout phrases with similar meanings in several languages at the same time.
“Alarm calls warn of predators, but here birds have learned the meaning of the call from other people’s alarm calls without needing to see the predator,” said Robert Magrath of the Australian National University and co -author in the release. “That means it’s a type of ‘social learning’, where individuals learn from others rather than through direct experience. In this case it is even more indirect, as they only need to hear and not see the birds giving the familiar alarm calls. So theoretically they could learn with their eyes closed!
It is likely that the fairy wren, superb or not, is not the only bird capable of engaging in social learning. “Wrens are smart, but they’re definitely not the smartest bird species,” Dominique Potvin, the study’s lead author, told Ryan F. Mandelbaum of Gizmodo. “So I think we could safely generalize these results to other birds, especially other songbirds.”
In fact, it’s no surprise that birds engage in social learning, and the result was expected. This is because in wild situations, predators are often seen only fleetingly, if at all. It would be strange if birds could only learn alarm calls by staring at a fox or cat stalking them. “If you can only learn in the presence of a predator, that’s pretty dangerous,” Radford told Larson. “The ability to learn by associating sounds with meaning makes sense, biologically.”
It could also have implications for conservation. According to the release, many endangered bird species bred in captivity and released into the wild become quick meals for predators. This may be because they simply haven’t learned the alarm calls of other species in the vicinity. Using ‘social learning’, these birds could be trained to recognize alarm calls before heading out into the big scary world.