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Baby Barn Owls Give Their Hungrier Siblings First Preference at Mealtime

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Like in most families, mealtime in owl nests can get a little rowdy. But among barn owl nestlings, competition over food is actually relatively civil: According to a new study, these avian siblings vocally communicate the extent of their hunger, and the less hungry step aside for the famished to eat their fill first. 

In a study in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (as reported by Audubon), ecologists at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland placed 27 young barn owls in fake nests with several mice, and played recordings of earlier sibling calls at different rates, monitoring how the sounds affected eating behavior. This was designed to simulate situations in which owl parents drop off food that can be divided up between multiple chicks, rather than forcing the nestlings to compete over a single piece of food. The recorded calls came from owl chicks that had not eaten in 28 hours. 

While the owls who heard the faster playback (indicating greater hunger) ate the same amount as the chicks who heard the slower playback (a noncompetitive call) over the course of the night, those who heard “siblings” crying faster for food paused before eating, waiting for the playback to stop. These chicks ate significantly less over the first five hours of the night, but then ate more to compensate during silent periods. 

When the owlets were alone, they didn’t vocalize any more than usual before eating, but when together, the parliament of owl siblings chattered before chowing down, suggesting that the vocalizations are communication-related, rather than simply related to the act of eating. “In barn owls, our results suggest that siblings vocalize to signal their intention to consume part of a food stock, a behavior that efficiently deters siblings from competing,” the researchers write, perhaps because it’s evolutionarily advantageous not to provoke your siblings into attacking you. 

[h/t Audubon]

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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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