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Study finds unexpected mutual aid behavior in Australian birds

Solving problems, recognizing oneself in a mirror or even making and using tools… Scientific experiments have shown that there are highly intelligent species among birds which have no difficulty in doing their proofs. This is the case with magpies, crows, jays and even certain parrots.

Yet it is an unexpected behavior that scientists have highlighted during a pilot study. In a report published in the journal Australian Field Ornithology, they tell how they have observed river cassicans – a species native to Australia and New Guinea – cooperating to get rid of the devices they had rigged up.

The flute cassican (Gymnorhina tibicen) is a passerine bird recognizable by its black and white plumage. Widespread and omnivorous, it is frequently observed in gardens and parks, and is known to form social groups of two to ten individuals. If he can sometimes be aggressive when it comes to defending his territory, he is known to be very intelligent.

A pilot study to test a new device

When Dominique Potvin of the University of the Sunshine Coast and his colleagues started their study, however, they did not think they were victims of the bird’s trick. Initially, the experiment aimed to test wearable tracking devices in order to learn more about the movements and social dynamics of the species.

To track birds, scientists typically use tags that they attach to individuals. However, most are not suitable for small or medium sized specimens. The others often have a limited data storage capacity, a low battery life or are only for single use.

It is to overcome these obstacles that the Australian team has designed its own device, explains Dominique Potvin in an article published on the site The Conversation. They created a harness capable of carrying a small beacon weighing less than one gram that did not require recapturing the bird to download data, recharge its battery or remove the device.

All these operations simply require a magnet with which the wearer must be brought into contact, for example by using a feeder. “The harness was strong and only had one weak point where the magnet could work. To remove the harness, you needed this magnet, or very good scissors“, specifies the co-author of the study.

Removed with a few pecks

We have successfully equipped five cassicans“Trained to go to an outdoor feeder,” she continued.All we had to do was wait and watch, and then lure the birds to the feeder to collect the valuable data.“. Except that the birds had obviously decided otherwise.

Just ten minutes after installing the devices, the team observed an adult female, who lacked them, use her beak on the harness of a younger bird. Shortly after, he was released. And a few hours later, most of the equipment had also been removed. “By day 3, even the group’s dominant male tag had been successfully taken down“, she assures.

Scientists did not observe the whole scene. They therefore do not know if it is the same individual who got rid of all the others or several who tackled it in turn. “But we never read anything about bird cooperating in this way to pull off tracking devices.“, she says. Including cassican flute therefore.

According to the team, the behavior is all the more remarkable as it requires a good ability to solve problems. To succeed in removing the harness, you have to attack – pulling and cutting – different parts with your beak. It also implies that the “rescuer” voluntarily helps the wearer who, for his part, agrees to let himself be done.

Rare behavior

The only similar example present in the scientific literature was observed in passerines in the Seychelles and described in 2017. In this case, the birds were helping members of their group to get rid of Pisonia seeds that stuck to their plumage. According to the authors, this was the first documented rescue behavior in birds.

It is possible, advances Dominique Potvin, that the harness and the beacon were perceived by the cassicans as a kind of parasite which had to be rid of. Further research would be needed to better understand how the birds operated and what faculties were used.

Either way, these results prove valuable for considering future follow-up experiments on black currants, or other species. “We suggest that attempts to observe animals with high cognitive or cooperative abilities should take into consideration potential collaborative efforts to remove devices.“, conclude the authors.

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