Eavesdropping Nuthatches and Chirpy Chickadees

19 March 2007 at 22:26 Leave a comment

The science headline of the day comes from New Scientist: Eavesdropping Nuthatches Act on Chickadee Warnings.

The article reports the findings of two University of Washington scientists, Christopher Templeton and Erick Greene, who studied red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees. In an earlier study, the scientists found that chickadees varied their call depending on the size of the predators. The smaller the predator, the more vocal the call and the more vigorous the response of the flock:

“It doesn’t seem intuitive. The big predators, with huge beaks and talons, seem dangerous to us. But big, nasty weapons are only useful if you can catch your prey. And the maneuverability of predators is determined by their wingspan,” says Templeton. Small predators are more adept at hunting chickadees than large ones.

Now Templeton and team have found that the nuthatches can understand the small differences in the chickadees’ calls and adjust the vehemence of their response accordingly.

Templeton says the nuthatches probably discriminate fine-scaled features in the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call such as the number of harmonics in the “dee” notes, or the length and timing of different syllables.

I grew up watching both these species of birds on the feeders outside my parents’ kitchen window, so it’s pretty cool to find out that they’re up to more than just gorging on sunflower seeds.

P.S. Is it just me, or does the word nuthatch look odd? Now that I see it in print, it’s almost like I can’t decide whether to parse it as nut-hatch or nu-thatch.


Entry filed under: Science.

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