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Photo by Stephanie Ware, The Field Museum.
Photo by Stephanie Ware, The Field Museum.

Given the Opportunity to Cheat on Their Mates, City Falcons Stay True

Photo by Stephanie Ware, The Field Museum.
Photo by Stephanie Ware, The Field Museum.

City life is a singular experience. We cram ourselves into territories far too small to support us and stack our homes on top of one another. We encounter other people at a rate that would have shocked and terrified our ancestors. In order to survive the city’s stresses and compression, we build up, we speed up, and we toughen up. For better or for worse, we change. And the same holds true for other animals. But some things stay the same; experts say that, even in crowded conditions, Chicago’s peregrine falcons stick to their naturally monogamous mating habits. The research was published in the journal PLOS One. 

Scientists have good reason to keep an eye on these birds. Fifty years ago, the widespread use of DDT nearly wiped out the U.S.’s entire population of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus). A ban on the pesticide, combined with aggressive conservation programs, have helped the birds bounce back in a major way. But like so many modern humans, the birds have urbanized. In Illinois alone, almost 90 percent of the peregrine falcon parents build their nests on Chicago’s buildings and bridges. This is a big shift for the falcon pairs, who historically maintained large territories around their cliffside nests. In isolated conditions, monogamy might be a natural choice (where would a bird even find someone else?) but the falcons are isolated no longer. Could living in such close proximity to others encourage falcons to sleep around?

To find out, a team of Chicago-based scientists tracked the nesting behavior of 350 birds at 20 nesting sites in nine Midwestern cities; they also ran DNA tests on the chicks. Three-quarters of the samples came from Chicago, perhaps because members of the Chicago Peregrine Program were already banding and taking blood samples from every falcon they could find. The ankle bands allowed observers to identify the inhabitants of each nest. By testing the birds’ blood, the researchers could figure out if a couple’s babies were 100 percent their own, or if one of the parents had been stepping out. 

Analysis of the DNA results and nest-watching revealed that, almost to a bird, the falcons remained loyal to their partners. Out of 126 baby birds, only 2 were being raised by a bird other than their biological parent, and even that was a special case: The male bird had hooked up with the already-pregnant female after his own mate had died. He was a stepdad, not a cuckold.

Co-author John Bates is associate curator of birds at The Field Museum in Chicago. He says that he and his colleagues were a little surprised by the results. “Each spring this population also has migratory peregrines passing through on their way to all parts of Canada, so we didn’t know what we were going to find,” he said in a press statement, "but it turns out that almost all of the mated pairs in the city remain monogamous through the years.”

Even greater than their loyalty to each other was the falcons’ loyalty to their nesting sites. It makes sense; while a partner might die in a collision with a building or a power line, a safe nesting niche is forever.

The researchers plan to continue keeping an eye on the birds. 

“Whenever you have animals living in habitats that have been influenced by human development, you have to wonder how the animals’ life histories will be altered,” says Bates. “It’s important to do studies like this one to see how birds are adapting to living in human environments, so that we can monitor changes through time.”

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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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