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Wolfgang Wander via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Wolfgang Wander via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Woodpeckers Assess Competitors by Their Drumming Skills

Wolfgang Wander via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Wolfgang Wander via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In a recent study, biologists say woodpecker couples decide whether or not they need to defend their territory by assessing other woodpeckers’ drumming abilities. The researchers published their findings in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are small birds that take up a lot of room. Each downy woodpecker couple maintains a territory centered around the tree where they’ve made their nest cavity. These territories are often challenged by lone male newcomers, who then frequently find themselves attacked by two angry birds.

However, some intruders are left alone. Researchers wondered how woodpecker couples determine which birds are worthy of this détente. They suspected that the occupying male and female might decide together after hearing what the new bird can do.

Woodpeckers peck to dig out bugs or to carve out nest cavities into the trunks of trees. But their characteristic jackhammer sound is not from pecking; it’s drumming. Unlike pecking, drumming, which usually takes place on especially loud trees or surfaces, serves a purely social purpose—announcing the presence of the drummer to any potential mates or rivals. And as in the world of human music, some drummers are better than others.

Wake Forest University researchers looking for woodpeckers. Image Credit: WFU/Ken Bennett

The researchers took recording equipment into downy woodpecker territories and recorded intruders’ drumming songs. They then manipulated those songs to make them shorter or longer. They returned to the reigning couples’ territories, played back the songs, and watched to see what the birds would do. They found that longer songs consistently got the birds revved up and ready to fight, as it made them believe there was a strong threat nearby. Meanwhile, shorter drums were more or less ignored. But before each bird acted, it checked to see what its partner was doing.

"Partners will actually coordinate or cooperate with how they fight depending on who they are fighting,” study co-author Matthew Fuxjager said in a press statement. “They size up their opponent and decide whether they need to work together. In short, it means an intruder woodpecker with a short drum is perceived as wimpier, while a long drum signifies a tough guy intruder."

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Animals
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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