Reasoning in Birds

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Discussion by: Vorlund

I observed some interesting behaviour among seabirds some while ago while on a cruise holiday. 

The ship pulled out early evening in twilight and the water was illuminated on each side by lights from the ship.  A flock of gulls which had been perched on the roof of a nearby building followed the ship out to catch the fish that were attracted to the lights.  Now this predation wasn't a random free for all from all directions.  The birds flew alongside the boat from stern to prow catching fish and then circled back a little way out to avoid other birds coming upstream to feed and then joining on again at the back. 

The interesting point for me is that by flying from stern to prow, the speed of the bird relative to the boat is slow and so they have more time to select and catch fish.  The return flight in the opposite direction, however, means the time they spend away from the catch is relatively much shorter. It also means (dependent to some degree on wind direction) that they expend less effort in unproductive flying so the whole process is potentially more efficient. 

Here is my question,  Is this an evolved behaviour?  Cruise ships haven't been around very long compared to the development of birds or is it reasoned behaviour?  That is to say, are the birds capable of working out that this flight pattern is more efficient?   Or is it simply that the fish following the boat can be stalked from behind more readily or is there some other factor?

Does anyone have any thoughts?

11 COMMENTS

  1. Birds are intelligent

    also, from the wiki page on blue tits: Eurasian Blue Tits are able to culturally transmit learning to other Tit species. An example of this, dating from the 1920s, is the ability to open milk bottles with foil tops, to get at the cream underneath.[17] Such behaviour has been suppressed recently by the gradual change of human dietary habits (low-fat or skimmed milk instead of full-fat), and the way of getting them (from a supermarket, instead of the milkman).[18]

    it seems birds can work stuff out and pass knowledge on

    • In reply to #1 by SaganTheCat:

      Birds are intelligent

      also, from the wiki page on blue tits: Eurasian Blue Tits are able to culturally transmit learning to other Tit species.

      As a child of the early 1950′s I observed this first hand. We always had full fat milk delivered to the door and often found the foil tops torn open to get at the cream. I agree birds pass on learned behaviour. I think however the milk top tearing behaviour may have developed from birds simply pecking at a shiny object and then finding it delivered them a food reward. Granted there is an intelligence at work.

      I’m really curious however about the predation behaviour of these seabirds. It appears to be much more complex than a chance discovery and the product of reasoning a bit like the ‘travelling salesman’ food collection behaviour which I think has only otherwise been attributed to humans and bees.

  2. A very interesting question. Here is my (completely uninformed) theory. It’s not “evolutionary” in the sense that the birds have some genetic drive to follow cruise ships or some other natural phenomena that happens to have the same relevant qualities to a bird as a cruise ship. Mainly because I can’t think of anything in nature that is close to a cruise ship.

    I also don’t think the birds are doing anything that really qualifies as intelligent in the sense of plans or theories about how the world works. I think most likely they have drives for a few major kinds of stimuli. Fish obviously and probably they are very good at gauging local wind conditions and adapting their flight behavior to best take advantage of them. I see this with hawks around my home all the time. They position themselves like a kite and use the wind to stay stationary hovering above one spot looking for food on the ground. I think a similar kind of genetic predisposition can cause the birds in this example to fly as they do.

  3. Birds can store information about where they can get food. This can be seen in birds that fly from the Arctic to Australia and back every year. They can also tell when seasonal food will be ripe. A bird probably stumbled on this tactic. Being a bird in a flock, others caught on. It is now a stored memory, not an evolutionary trait.

    On my golf course we have northern hemisphere pines. No Australian bird would have an evolutionary trait to utilize this resource. But every Autumn when the pine cones are still green and ripening, flocks of hundreds of Corella fly hundreds of miles to roost on the golf course and break open and extremely hard green pine cone and extract the juvenile seed. I ponder who was the first bird to do this. Did he sit there and think. “That green thing over there, why don’t I hop over and crack it open on the off chance it might contain food.” Australia’s largest parrot, the yellow tailed black cockatoo has also learned this behaviour. They migrate from the east coast of Australia to the central south coast to do this.

    I have beautiful Eastern Rosella’s living in the nesting box in my tree. They have learned to open the green seeds on a White Cedar tree from the northern hemisphere and extract seeds.

    Congratulations on the observation. A rational mind at work.

  4. What I also find interesting, birds (like every animal, including us) have been shown to be very susceptible to following beneficial patterns and positive reinforcement, Queue videos of experiments where pigeons run around in circle in a specific arbitrary pattern and get their reward, and their confusion when the pattern changes unwillingly.

    So I suspect it’s not reasoning as such, more of a learned, emergent behavior. Do something that works, keep doing it. Find some improvement, then stick with it, without even thinking about it. And the greater the success, the greater the reinforcement. We can also do this subconsciously. Queue again our general susceptibility to all the marketing and retail tricks, advertisement campaigns.

    Birds learn, but is that reasoning, as in having an internal dialogue and working things out? Maybe, maybe not. Some of them do seem bloody clever though.

  5. Colleagues, thank you for your observations and comments they are very illuminating. It seems hardly likely that the birds can actually reason viz calculate the most efficient approach. Though bees and humans are the only species credited (as far as I know) with solving the travelling salesman problem when gathering food, the birds behaviour looks like a similar thing. I expect the behaviour has been refined over successive generations and any tactics which are not inclusively fit for survival have been dropped. The other interesting thing is that the birds appear to be keen observers. They don’t sit on the roof all day but accumulate a short while before sailing and immediately take to the air the minute the ship pulls out.

    Once again thanks for your thoughts. Vorlund.

    • In reply to #6 by Vorlund:

      Though bees and humans are the only species credited (as far as I know) with solving the travelling salesman problem when gathering food,

      No they haven’t. No living thing nor computer for that matter (including quantum computers if they ever exist) can “solve” the traveling salesman problem for non-trivial graphs of more than a handful of nodes and links. It’s a classic NP hard problem. Actually it fits in with what I was saying on a different thread about how you can analyze things like optimality and don’t expect to find it in the real world for computers. There are optimal solutions to traveling salesman problems (the absolute shortest path out of all possible paths) and it is impossible to have an algorithm that guarantees finding them in finite time that doesn’t span billions of years.

  6. It’s obviously not evolution because, as you say, cruise ships have not been around long enough. However, birds might stumble across new and efficient ways to hunt/gather food and it may be an evolved trait for other birds to copy the behaviour of successful feeders.

    I think that great French ornithologist said it best.

  7. It is certain that birds like gulls evolved patterns of flight and the required behaviours while negotiating cliffs and shorelines and islands, and all sorts of complicated shapes, with winds and tidal currents and shoals of fish drifting and swirling about, making it quite a complicated problem, and necessitating a fairly big brain. This may be why sea birds tend to be bigger than inland birds. A ship is just another big wind-diverting obstacle, moving relative to the water, which for some reason has shoals of fish nearby- to a gull nothing new at all!

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