Birds

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We see birds around us every day, so you might think we know all there is to know about our feathered friends - but that is far from the case! There are still many things we don't know about how birds behave, their history, and their future.

American Avocets flying Image credit: © Don McCullough (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

How do birds migrate without getting lost?

Many birds migrate - leaving behind cold winters where food may be scarce for sunnier, more plentiful areas. But how they know where to go, and avoid getting lost, is still not fully understood. Like early human travellers, it is thought that some birds use the sun and/or the stars to help make sure they continue in the right direction. Others use the earth's magnetic field to help them navigate with their own internal compass, although exactly how they do this is still unclear.

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Some researchers believe quantum entanglement might explain birds' ability to detect the earth's magnetic field. Special cells which contain proteins with entangled electrons have been found to exist in birds' eyes. When light hits these proteins, one of the entangled electrons moves just a few nano-metres. This is enough for the two electrons to feel different forces from the earth's magnetic field. Different chemicals are produced depending on these forces, and the bird senses these, giving it a picture of the earth's magnetic field. [1]

Despite advances in this area, we don't understand how exactly these processes give rise to a useful navigational system in the animal, or how it maintains the delicate quantum entanglement long enough to make use of it. We also don't know how these systems evolved. Even more fundamentally, it isn't clear how birds know which direction to head for in the first place. Even on their first migration, many species know exactly where they are aiming for. This suggests an innate mechanism, but more research is needed to discover exactly how this works.

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Sea bird flying Image credit: Public domain

Why do birds bob their heads when walking?

You have probably noticed that some birds, such as chickens, bob their head as they walk, in a distinctive but rather comical motion! Some studies suggest this might be to do with vision, while others believe it could help their balance. But while researchers try to decide which of these is the more important reason, why exactly birds bob their heads remains unknown.
Learn more about vision.

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How are human behaviours affecting birds?

© Sylvain Haye (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Great tits have flexible enough behaviour to survive climate change- other birds might not be so lucky. Image credit: © Sylvain Haye (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons 
One thing that scientists agree on is that climate change is happening, and is something animals will have to deal with in the coming years. How different species will handle it, however, is less clear.

Over the last 50 years, scientists have been studying a population of great tits in Oxford, UK [2] . They found that the birds are flexible enough to adapt their behaviour to fit the changing climate. A clear indication of this is the fact that the birds now lay their eggs an average of 2 weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago- to fit in with the peak in caterpillar numbers, and ensure their young are well fed. This ability to change behaviour on shorter timescales than evolution allows means these birds could survive a change of up to 0.5 oC per year (better than the current predicted rise of 0.03 oC per year). If they didn't have this ability, it is estimated that there’s a 60% chance the birds would become extinct[3].

Although this is good news for tits, and other short-lived, fast reproducing birds, it is unclear whether longer-lived species would adapt so well to a changing climate. This study shows that evolution alone is not enough for even tits to be able to survive the changes we are seeing in our climate. This means that any birds which do not have this flexibility in their behaviour could be in real trouble as the earth warms.
Learn more about evolution.

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And there are other challenges that birds are facing thanks to human effects on the environment. One of these is the quantity of plastic in the seas. Birds have been found with remnants of plastic bags in their stomachs, which they have presumably mistaken for food. This can be hugely damaging, but there is at least the possibility of removing large pieces of plastic from the oceans to protect wildlife. Smaller pieces of plastic, known as micro-plastics, however, are impossible to move, and we don't know what damage they might be causing.

Some microplastics have been generated directly, to use in face and body scrubs, toothpastes and other beauty products. Although microplastics are now banned from cosmetics, there are still many of them out there gradually winding their way into the environment. Small pieces of plastics may also be generated when larger pieces of plastic break down. Microplastics are too small to be seen by the human eye, and because of their small size they aren't filtered out during waste-water treatment. That means they wash down your plughole and straight out to sea, where they are an attractive food source for small marine animals.

We know that these plastics are having a negative effect on the animals that eat them, but what we don't know is what effect they can have as they are passed up the food chain, for example in birds that eat the affected marine animals. Even if the plastics themselves have broken down by the time they reach the birds, it is possible that this breakdown process could produce toxic substances that would damage the birds' health.
Learn more about water.

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Seagulls eating Image credit: Public domain

Cats are one of our most popular pets, with an estimated quarter of households now owning one. But compared to dogs, cats have been domesticated much more recently, so retain a lot of their wild characteristics, such as their hunting instinct. There have been few studies looking at the impact domestic cats have on wild birds and small mammals. In some regions of the world, such as Australasia, wild cat species were never present, so the introduction of pet cats has more risk of being problematic. Species they pray on are not used to avoiding them, so feral cats whose ancestors were originally brought over as pets have had a huge impact on certain native animals.

Keeping cats as pets allows the number to rise far above the maximum that would be possible for a natural population as the natural processes that normally keep predator numbers in check - access to food and territory, no longer apply. Because of this, there is concern that cats could have a destructive influence on bird numbers even in places where wild cats have existed, although how big a problem house cats are is still unknown.
Learn more about keystone species.

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Yet another human behaviour that impacts birds is our impact on their natural habitat. Intensive farming has led to catastrophic declines in bird populations in agricultural areas across Europe, even amongst common, resilient species like black birds. With many populations down by a third, and some hard hit up to 68%, pesticides are the top suspect for this sudden decline in avian numbers. Following reported decreases of up to 80% in insect populations in Germany over the last 40 years, suspected to be worldwide, this could be because we are decreasing their food supply. Alternatively, it could be because, like bees and neonicotinoids, pesticides could be impacting populations chemically.

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Adaptions

The devastating effect of human agriculture on native bird populations is especially stunning when we consider how fast birds adapt to pressures in their environment. One example particular amongst birds is their ability to adjust the sex ratios of their offspring according to environmental pressures. For example, male offspring of the Seychelles warbler scatter and occupy new areas when they mature, whilst the females stay with their mothers and maintain their original territory. As such, when food is scarce, up to 90% of offspring is male; when food is plenty, up to 90% of offspring is female. One researcher who switched breeding pairs between high and low quality territories then observed that the sex ratios in each pair switched. Switching sex ratios ensures larger numbers of grandchildren and as such greater propagation of genes. Other animals, including deer and humans, have been reported to choose their offspring’s sex based on their own physical wellbeing.

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Birds, like squirrels, are also able to cache or hide food in stores in the spring and summer for eating during the cold winter months, returning 6 to 9 months later and locating their hidden supplies with surprising accuracy - up to 80 or 90%. In some countries, the landscape where they have hidden the food can have changed dramatically, such as by getting covered in snow - and look entirely different, making it all the more surprising that they can find it again. So how do they do it? Like in migration, they may use a combination of tactics including landmarks, smell, steps, or magnetic field lines of the earth - we don’t know. Finding their caches is important for survival, so animals that have developed strong tactics for relocating their winter foods are those that survive and pass on the skills. They also develop tactics like spreading out their stores, meaning if they’re discovered by others or they forget where they were they still have other undisturbed caches to go to. For all we know, human practices like intensive farming could also be disrupting this natural adaptive process, and so affecting adaptive processes.

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Waferboard - taking a swing at it Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0 via Wikipedia Commons
Squirrel reaching for a bird-feeder. Image credit: Waferboard - taking a swing at it Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0 via Wikipedia Commons 

Not all adaptive bird behaviours seem clever, though. Some birds engage in a process called vocal hitchhiking. The male fairy wren mysteriously mimicks the call of the butcher bird that preys on it when females are nearby (and only males do this). Scientists think it may be to show bravado when the female fairy wren is listening carefully, wary of the predator, and so increase his chances of mating and reproducing. However, it seems strange that this would be of evolutionary advantage as it also calls the butcher birds’ attention to them and results in high mortality. Quite why it’s evolved is still a mystery.

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List of Institutes Researching Vocal hitchhiking
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Nevertheless, the majority of adaptive behaviours amongst birds are to their advantage, and have made them a robust species and the closest living thing to a surviving dinosaur. Thus, given the impact we humans have had on birds directly and indirectly, it is all the more crucial we learn more about these creatures.


This article was written by the Things We Don’t Know editorial team, with contributions from Ginny Smith, Cait Percy, Johanna Blee, and Rowena Fletcher-Wood.

This article was first published on and was last updated on 2018-04-12.

References
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[1] Lisa Grossman, "In the Blink of a Bird's Eye, a Model for Quantum Navigation" (2011) wired.com
[2] Vedder O, Bouwhuis S, Sheldon BC (2013) Quantitative Assessment of the Importance of Phenotypic Plasticity in Adaptation to Climate Change in Wild Bird Populations. PLoS Biol 11(7): e1001605. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001605
[3] Vedder, Oscar, Sandra Bouwhuis, and Ben C Sheldon. "Quantitative Assessment of the Importance of Phenotypic Plasticity in Adaptation to Climate Change in Wild Bird Populations" PLOS Biology 11.7 (2013): e1001605 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001605



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