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Cinereous Mourner Chicks Pretend to Be Poisonous Caterpillars

Santiago David Rivera (left) // Wendy Valencia (right)

This strange baby bird may look like pretty flashy, but its plumage keeps it safer than you would think. 

The jungle is a rough place for the young, and nestlings often fall victim to predators like snakes, birds, and mammals. Each animal needs a special way to stay out of harm's way, or else risk extinction. The cinereous mourner chick lives in a high-kill area, but lacks the colors to camouflage or the ability to fly. So, according to a new study published in the the January 2015 issue of The American Naturalist, vulnerable chicks have evolved the ability to hide in plain sight.

During an ecological study in the fall of 2012, researchers found a cinereous mourner nest in southeastern Peru (only the second such nest ever described) and noted that although the adults have smooth black feathers, the chicks are covered in downy orange feathers tipped with black and white. When the researchers took measurements of the nest, the tiny birds began to bob their heads slowly back and forth, not unlike a caterpillar. After some investigating, the scientists found a poisonous caterpillar in the area with similar coloring that made similar movements, and theorized that the tiny birds mimicked the poisonous caterpillars to discourage potential predators from eating them. 

So what exactly are these birds mimicking? It's a horrifyingly large orange caterpillar that's 12 centimeters long, or about one chick size. The fuzzy bug's hairs contain a toxin that irritates the skin (not that you would want to touch it anyway). The exact species has yet to be described, but you can watch the creepy-crawlie move around: 

The fluffy chicks' behavior is an example of Batesian mimicry, a survival technique where a harmless animal has evolved to imitate a more threatening species with which it shares a common predator. Batesian mimicry is often seen in insects, but rarely in vertebrates; it's the first time it has ever been found in birds. With such a remarkable hiding technique, it's no wonder they've stayed hidden for so long. 

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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