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Bird Burglars

June 6, 2006

To keep our belongings secure, we use alarms, guard dogs, vaults, and secret hiding places. Scientists have found a bird that goes to nearly as much trouble.


How some birds avoid burglaries. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Burglary is rampant among Western scrub-jays. That’s why these small woodland birds hide their food. Now, researchers at Cambridge University in England have found that they also keep close tabs on each other. Psychologist Nicola Clayton says that if a scrubjay hides his food when another bird is watching, he’ll go back to check on it later. If the coast is clear, he’ll move the food once. If the same observer is still there, he’ll move it several times to confuse the would-be thief. And if a new bird is there, he won’t move it at all.

NICOLA CLAYTON (Cambridge University, England):
To do so, they must not only recognize different individuals, but they must remember who was watching at a particular time. So the idea is that they’re sort of keeping an eye on the competition, if you like…

…which, for a bird, is a surprisingly sophisticated sort of paranoia. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.