Listening to Animals

Have you ever wished you could understand what animals are saying? How would you figure out animal language? In a new study, biologists from South Korea and Poland explained the steps they took to try to interpret exactly what birds called the oriental tit (species name Parus minor) are saying when they call out in alarm.

Oriental tits raise their babies in hollows in trees or in nest boxes. They do not have to worry about predators who cannot squeeze through their small nest entrances. But snakes can squeeze into a nest, and oriental tits have a specific alarm call when a snake comes near. When little nestlings hear this call, they jump out of their nest.

The alarm call for when tits see snakes is different from the call when they see a large bird, like a crow or jay. Large birds can also be a menace because they will attack young birds when they are out of their nests but are too big to get into nests.

The biologists wondered if the tit parents would use the same kind of call they use for snakes for when they see chipmunks, which are also common where the birds live and can get into nests. The researchers found that the bird calls for chipmunks are different than for snakes. The biologists concluded that the bird has a very specific call that means “beware of snake!” The call does not translate to “beware of predators that can get into our nest!” The young birds only jump out of their nests when they hear the snake call, maybe because snakes are more likely to eat the birds in their nests than chipmunks are.

Photograph shows Parus minor. Credit: Alpsdake

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