Sneaky thieves steal hair from foxes, raccoons, dogs, and even you
As anyone who has ever tried eating French fries on a beach will attest, flight is not an uncommon behavior among birds. In fact, many birds are very good at daring and cheeky flight.
Scientists have documented several species of birds, including magpies, winter birds and black kites, looting everything from discarded plastic to expensive jewelry to decorate their nests. And then there are birds who want hair, and who go to great lengths to put their beaks in it.
Hair from dogs, raccoons and even humans has been found in bird nests, which scientists say makes the nests better insulated. For a long time, scientists assumed that birds should pick up fallen hairs or collect them from mammal carcasses. However, a new study, published last week in the journal Ecology, shows that several bird species, including chickadees and chickadees, don’t just collect hair, they steal it.
The study, based largely on analysis of YouTube videos, shows numerous examples of birds pulling hair tufts on living mammals, including humans. This phenomenon, which the study authors dubbed “kleptotrichia”, has been well documented by birders on the web, but it is the first time that scientists have officially recognized it.
“This is just another example of something that has been overlooked in the scientific literature but was common knowledge in the bird watching and feeding community,” said Henry Pollock, postdoctoral researcher in Ornithology at the University of Illinois and co-author of the new study.
Last spring, Dr Pollock was taking part in his university’s annual spring bird count when a bushy chickadee caught his eye. He was flying close to a raccoon that was sleeping soundly on a tree branch, getting closer and closer to him. Then, much to Dr. Pollock’s amusement, the little bird began to pluck tufts of raccoon fur. The chickadee managed to steal more than 20 furry beaks from the raccoon without waking it up.
After witnessing this adorable act of theft, Dr Pollock began scanning the scientific literature to see if anything similar had ever been documented.
He found only 11 recorded cases of birds stealing the hairs of living mammals, which included reports of honeyeater plucking the hairs of koalas and a observation from 1946 of a tit tearing the hair of a red squirrel tail. Dissatisfied, Dr Pollock began to look for examples of this behavior outside the scientific literature. It turned out to be much more successful. A simple YouTube search yielded nearly a hundred videos of birds running away with mammal fur. Ninety-three percent of the videos found by Dr Pollock showed tufted tits plucking the hair of domestic dogs and human (without much success in this case).
The remaining seven percent of the videos featured Parids, the family of birds that includes chickadees, chickadees, and chickadees, sneaking and stealing hair from raccoons, cats, dogs and in a video, a North American Porcupine. It became clear to Dr. Pollock that this behavior was not only prevalent, especially in Paridae, but that it was also well known among those who are passionate about birds.
“I’ve seen it personally,” said Daniel Baldassarre, assistant professor at SUNY Oswego who studies the behavioral ecology of urban birds. “I lived somewhere where I had bird feeders on the railings of my porch and my yellow lab would sit on the deck and the tits would land on him and rip his fur off,” Dr Baldassarre said, who was not involved in the project. to study. “It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Dr Baldassarre is not surprised that kleptotrichia appears to be common in Paridae, as the birds of this family are “the type of species that could understand this behavior.” They are very daring, exploratory and intelligent.
Both Dr Baldassarre and Dr Pollock suspect that birds commit these acts of theft to isolate their nests. Crested Chickadees and other Paridae “nesting in early spring when the weather is still quite cold, so being able to keep the nest warm is very important,” said Dr Baldassarre. A study of the scientific literature on the nests of 51 species of Parid found mammalian hairs in 44. The seven species with furless nests all live in areas with a warmer climate.
Dr Pollock hopes further research will help scientists determine the costs and benefits of kleptotricy and how prevalent it is among birds. He also hopes this study will demonstrate the value of community knowledge and other non-traditional sources of information.
“As a scientist, you must be open to exploring alternative sources of information. I think the usefulness of popular literature is often underestimated, and the birdwatching community in particular is often underestimated.