Hidden Messages Woven Into Birds’ Nests

kitenestJust more evidence that non-human animal species have deeper intelligence than we give them credit for, and communicate in ways to which we are oblivious. Wired Science discusses a secret form of bird-language, which we should probably learn if we hope to foil the coming avian takeover:

The discovery of messages in raptors’ nests has raised the possibility that many bird species encode signals into these structures, with seemingly decorative flourishes actually full of meaning.

Among black kites, scraps of white plastic are used to signal territorial dominance. To other kites, the scraps are a warning sign. To humans, they hint at an unappreciated world of animal communication.

“It’s probably very common that other bird species decorate their nests in ways compatible with what we found,” said Fabrizio Sergio, a biologist at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain. “And not only birds, but fish and mammals.”

A few species, such black wheateaters and bowerbirds, are already known to use nest design in courtship displays. But such communication is considered uncommon and relatively one-dimensional, aimed entirely at finding a mate.

Other, ubiquitous forms of decoration — colorful ribbons and man-made trinkets, or flowers and bright grasses, found in the nests of hundreds of species — have been dismissed as insignificant adornment.

They found that, several weeks before females laid eggs, birds festooned their nests with pieces of white plastic. Fitter birds, in possession of the best territory, tended to use more plastic. Weaker birds, with less-desirable territory, used less. Elderly and very young birds used none.

Territorial confrontations are common among kites, and proved closely linked to displays of plastic. Kites with much plastic in their nest were rarely challenged, while those with little were challenged daily, even hourly.

The plastic appears to be a convenient way of codifying and announcing strength, saving kites from indiscriminate or ill-chosen battles. The birds also had access to green and transparent plastics, ostensibly preferring white because of its long-distance visibility.

When the researchers intruded, however, adding extra plastic to nests, challenges paradoxically became more frequent — suggesting that kite community is aware of existing claims, and quick to test would-be cheaters.

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  • justagirl

    if i was a bird, i would decorate my nest with animal corpses.

  • justagirl

    if i was a bird, i would decorate my nest with animal corpses.

  • http://www.nickmeador.org/ ndmeador

    I took animal behavior classes in college, and it was always clear that we had little understanding of most animal communication. One of the most amazing examples (to me) was the way bees direct other hive members to a source of pollen. We know they do a dance that seems to provide spatial information to other bees—but the “language” is really still a mystery.

    • Dav!d

      Bees aren’t intentionally going after the pollen in flowers. They are gathering nectar for their food. The distribution of pollen is an unintended (from the bee’s point of view) side-effect, without which many species of plants would not survive.

      • http://twitter.com/reptilegrrl Priscilla

        David, bees store and eat pollen as well as nectar. This is why bees collect pollen and bring it back to the hive. The distribution of pollen is a side effect, but the collection of pollen is deliberate. Pollen is the protein food of bees.

  • http://www.nickmeador.org/ ndmeador

    I took animal behavior classes in college, and it was always clear that we had little understanding of most animal communication. One of the most amazing examples (to me) was the way bees direct other hive members to a source of pollen. We know they do a dance that seems to provide spatial information to other bees—but the “language” is really still a mystery.

  • Dav!d

    Bees aren’t intentionally going after the pollen in flowers. They are gathering nectar for their food. The distribution of pollen is an unintended (from the bee’s point of view) side-effect, without which many species of plants would not survive.

  • Youlldoitandlikeit

    plastic?! that’s sick. thank you, humankind.

  • Youlldoitandlikeit

    plastic?! that’s sick. thank you, humankind.

  • http://twitter.com/reptilegrrl Priscilla

    David, bees store and eat pollen as well as nectar. This is why bees collect pollen and bring it back to the hive. The distribution of pollen is a side effect, but the collection of pollen is deliberate. Pollen is the protein food of bees.

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