The Associated Press reports that birds may be able to understand each others’ language. Randolph E. Schmid writes:
Nuthatches appear to have learned to understand a foreign language — chickadee.
It’s not unusual for one animal to react to the alarm call of another, but nuthatches seem to go beyond that — interpreting the type of alarm and what sort of predator poses a threat.
When a chickadee sees a predator, it issues warning call — a soft “seet” for a flying hawk, owl or falcon, or a loud “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” for a perched predator.
The “chick-a-dee” call can have 10 to 15 “dees” at the end and varies in sound to encode information on the type of predator. It also calls in other small birds to mob the predator, Christopher Templeton of the University of Washington said in a telephone interview. “In this case the nuthatch is able to discriminate the information in this call,” said Templeton, a doctoral candidate.
The findings by Templeton and Erick Green, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Montana, are reported in this week’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Templeton had been studying chickadees and noticed their varying response to different alarm calls, so he recorded them and watched the responses. He found the songbirds warned of greater danger from small, agile raptors such as the pygmy owl rather than something larger and less maneuverable, like the great horned owl.
I love this bit at the end of the piece: “Also, said Dhondt, who was not part of Templeton’s research team, black-capped chickadees have been known to produce false alarm calls, causing other birds to fly away, leaving the cheating chickadees to enjoy a food source by itself.”
[MSNBC: One bird species learns another’s ling — e-mail submission from RJ]