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If you want the feeder to yourself, there's nothing like being able to imitate a hawk. Photo: <a href="">pwhellen</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
If you want the feeder to yourself, there's nothing like being able to imitate a hawk. Photo: pwhellen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: natural deceptions

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Birds and other creatures have a sly side and will use deceptive communications to create an advantage for themselves in finding food and finding mates. Blue jays can imitate the sound of a hawk, scaring other species away from the feeder. Some birds mimic the alarm cries of other species, making them think that another of their kind is warning them about a predator.

But they can't pull the trick too often. "Crying wolf" has the same consequences in the animal world as it does in the fairy tale. Martha Foley and Curt Stager discuss the "tricksy" side of birds, and of cuttlefish.

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Martha Foley: Let's talk about false alarms, "crying wolf" in the animal kingdom. You've got some great stories about birds, mammals, squids. And they all fake it to their own advantage.

Curt Stager: It's amazing how much work goes into this kind of study, probably because it's fascinating, but I got into it because I saw this happen myself at my birdfeeder. One day I was looking through the window, and the birds were out there doing their thing, and suddenly I hear a hawk call. So I expect all the birds to scatter and they didn't. I said, "wait, a hawk's going to get them!" And it called again, and the birds didn't fly away, and then suddenly this blue jay shows up and lands amid them and gave the same call. He was mimicking a hawk.

MF: But it didn't work for him, did it!

CS: Didn't work for him.

MF: But a good try.

CS: Yeah, it fooled me. Anyway, so probably the birds knew this guy was a faker and knew not to fly off. But that turns out to be a whole field of study in animal behavior, deceptive signaling, and there are many different kinds of it.

MF: So that's the blue jay. And a lot of birds mimic other calls, but this was very intentionally to scare other birds off the food that he wanted.

CS: Yeah, so in this case, if it's what it seemed to be, was one bird pretending it was a predator to scare them off. But more commonly, birds will fake an alarm call saying a predator is coming instead of trying to copy the sound of the predator itself. So there was one really neat study in the journal Science about an African bird (it's called a drongo, it's kind of like a dark-colored robin-sized thing) and it's a mimic, it can copy the sounds of like 50 different calls of other kinds of birds and even these African animals called meerkats that kind of look like a cute ferret kind of thing. And they'll use these alarm calls of multiple species to scare them off their food so the bird can come in and steal it. So they'll copy the alarm call of this bird or that mammal hoping it will scare them off, but unlike this blue jay that I saw, they also avoid letting those animals know that they're fakers.

MF: How do they do that?

CS: By not doing it too much.

MF: Oh, not crying wolf too many times.

CS: So the biologist studying them know they'll do it once, maybe twice, and then change it to another call and then the animals don't get used to it. That's a neat idea.

MF: That's pretty crafty. And does it work for them?

CS: Yeah, it works really well. And there are even different versions of this. It's really a sign that animals really listen carefully to all the other animals around them. Like in the case of that blue jay, in that case they were listening and they didn't care, but in the case of these drongos, if they use the alarm call of another kind of bird that is known not to be a faker, like there's a kind of starling when it says, you know, "here comes some danger!"…

MF: Everybody listens.

CS: Everybody listens because it's true!

MF: Because that starling doesn't lie about it, whereas this drongo… wow.

CS: Yeah, so they sometimes copy that bird. And everybody thinks, "Oh, the starling is afraid, it must be something real." And they all fly off, and it was the drongo and it gets a nice meal.

MF: Well, I also love the story of the cuttlefish. This one is really, really sly.

CS: These things are neat. They're kind of like a cross between a squid and an octopus and like those relatives, they can change their colors really quickly for camouflage and other behaviors. So when a male is courting a female, they'll put on their best colors, their best female colors, their best male colors to impress each other, you could say. But if there's another fella nearby watching who might come by and interrupt this courtship, this kind of cuttlefish male can change the colors on the other half of his body that's not facing the female.

MF: Like he'll put his back to the other cuttlefish and pretend to be something else, to be doing something else?

CS: He'll notice where the other fella is, turn himself sideways, and the side facing the other male will look totally different and not look like a courting male at all, like "there's nothing going here at all!" Sometimes there's a background or colored like a female, so there's nothing going on there.

MF: Very, very sly. Very sly.

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