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A story of miniature cryptography and a password protected home
May 30, 2014 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Genius in a tiny mother bird, who learned to give her babies a password so they wouldn't die. A musical password. The Superb Fairy Wren sings to her eggs. The unborn baby birds, still in the egg, learn that musical password and sing it on being hatched.
posted by nickyskye (36 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Genius" implies that the bird figured this out as a deliberate countermeasure to the cuckoo's tactics. But the fact that every single fairy wren uses the same trick (and the fact that cuckoo hatchlings and fairy wren hatchlings look nothing alike--presenting a far easier solution to the problem if the fairy wrens were actually thinking this process through step by step) suggests that that is not the case.

Birds are certainly capable of amazing puzzle-solving tricks, but I find it weird how deeply people want to anthropomorphize animal intelligence.
posted by yoink at 9:28 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Yoink: It's a bit pedantic to argue with what could reasonably be construed as a metaphorical use of the term. Especially when you had the opportunity to do so much more pithily, i.e. "Not genius, but genus."
posted by novelgazer at 9:33 AM on May 30 [20 favorites]


anthropomorphize animal intelligence.

Or natural selection itself in this case.
posted by anazgnos at 9:34 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Yoink: It's a bit pedantic to argue with what could reasonably be construed as a metaphorical use of the term.

Well, I'm a bit pedantic--so there's that. But more to the point, the linked article is also very anthropomorphizing, insisting that that this isn't something that is "hard-wired" because the birds all come up with different songs. But that's pretty silly, no? There's no reason they shouldn't be "hard-wired" to produce individualized songs any more than the fact that individual dogs all have recognizable and distinct scents proves that they're creatively "inventing" those scents or the fact that we all have distinct fingerprints proves that we each creatively sculpt the flesh into forms that please us.
posted by yoink at 9:39 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


But more to the point, the linked article is also very anthropomorphizing, insisting that that this isn't something that is "hard-wired" because the birds all come up with different songs.

I think what the article is saying is that the ability to learn the "feeding note" is hardwired, but the feeding note itself is individual to each nest and is learned prior to hatching.

That the feeding note is not uniform across the species is not surprising. It has been observed that bird song of species with longer, more complicated calls can vary regionally, and that these variances also evolve across time so that the same species observed, say, a decade apart, while identifiable as the same species, will be a very different song.

It is likely that these songs are learned and change through transcription errors, while the ability to learn the song itself is innate.
posted by hippybear at 9:50 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


anthropomorphize animal intelligence.

Or natural selection itself in this case.


Except that natural selection is selecting for the failures in this case.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:51 AM on May 30


I respect your position on anthropomorphizing as it can muddy the waters, particularly in a science story (this very thinly qualifies for that category). Since this was a brief piece on an interesting bit of animal behavior, I think it was a reasonable call on the part of the author to simplify by substituting convenient and familiar metaphor of motivation and agency for selective pressure and genetics.

Also, I was mostly making a joke about correcting a pedant.
posted by novelgazer at 9:52 AM on May 30


Also - wouldn't cuckoo babies hear the same songs as the wren's own?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:52 AM on May 30


I think what the article is saying is that the ability to learn the "feeding note" is hardwired, but the feeding note itself is individual to each nest and is learned prior to hatching.

I think that's a generous read (and it's certainly not explicitly stated). The writer is very keen on the notion that the birds are "naming" their children:
What if every Superb Fairy-wren used the same note? Then it's not a name, it's a hard-wired cry.

What's A Name?


Ed Yong, in his wonderful blog Not Exactly Rocket Science considered this question last year, and reported that the science papers say the notes used by chicks in different nests are not the same. They vary from brood to brood. They aren't innate. Different parents in different nests used different notes.
posted by yoink at 9:55 AM on May 30


Also - wouldn't cuckoo babies hear the same songs as the wren's own?

This is addressed in the article.
Even though cuckoo eggs get incubated alongside the wren’s eggs, they don’t have enough time to learn the pass-note. The lessons begin 10 days after the eggs are laid, which gives the wren embryos around 5 days to learn the call. Cuckoo eggs only get about 2 days, meaning that fairy-wrens can leave the cuckoos behind.
posted by hippybear at 9:56 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


yoink: you and I are commenting on different links in this FPP, I believe. Try the last link for what may be a more palatable write-up of this observation.
posted by hippybear at 9:57 AM on May 30


This is a totally awesome parasite defense.
The cuckoo's protection racket method of enforcing nest parasitism (destroying the eggs of any bird that rejects its eggs) is interesting, because it is a weird intersection of "spite" and "altruism," both of which are difficult for natural selection to explain. When a cuckoo returns to a nest it parasitized, finds it cuckoo-less, and wrecks the joint, it is expending valuable time and energy on a task from which it will likely see no direct return-on-investment in its lifetime. It's hurting someone else with no (direct) benefit to itself, hence, "spite". But the cuckoo is also selecting against birds which reject cuckoo eggs, thereby benefiting all cuckoos in the long term. That benefit is shared by all cuckoos, but the cost is accrued by the single cuckoo doing the punishment, hence, "altruism". Because selection acts at the individual level but the benefits are accrued at the population level, it's hard to explain why individual cuckoos haven't evolved to "freeload" by not bothering to engage in punishment behavior. "Why don't these freeloaders freeload?" is a weird question to find oneself asking. In conclusion, cuckoos are a land of contrasts.
posted by agentofselection at 9:59 AM on May 30 [10 favorites]


Those non-freeloading cuckoos are completely cuck—, uh...nuts!
posted by yoink at 10:13 AM on May 30


cuck—, uh...nuts!
I didn't think a Superb Fairywren was strong enough to carry a coconut.
posted by novelgazer at 10:20 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


All the pedantry upthread is likely a result of my biggest pet peeve: Someone used genius when they meant ingenious. The method described, whether innate or invented or accidental, is quite ingenious indeed, but it will not qualify any fairy wren for a Mensa membership.

(Unless that fairy wren learns to write a cheque.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:25 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I didn't think a Superb Fairywren was strong enough to carry a coconut.

What if it's an African Superb Fairywren?
posted by yoink at 10:25 AM on May 30 [1 favorite]


This must be Clever Birds Week. I saw a blog post yesterday about some birds which have learned how to trigger the motion sensor to operate automatic doors at the entrance to an underground bike park.
posted by HillbillyInBC at 10:31 AM on May 30


We've raised a duck that knows how to cover the back deck in liquid crap in such a way as to make it impossible to walk over without collecting some. Does that count?
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 AM on May 30 [3 favorites]


This must be Clever Birds Week. I saw a blog post yesterday about some birds which have learned how to trigger the motion sensor to operate automatic doors at the entrance to an underground bike park.

That's less clever birds than stupid humans. Install a button, dummies.

(It does explain the birds in a lot of grocery stores I've been to, though.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:39 AM on May 30


Yoink: It's a bit pedantic to argue with what could reasonably be construed as a metaphorical use of the term.

There's this newfound "I fucking love science" attitude thats going around. Thats great. I want science to be more accessible, and I guess this is whats necessary to get those people interested who were never "into science" in HS and college.

Except that hard science is sometimes taken, made easy for those people, and then presented incorrectly.

Fun Facts:

Even typically non-parasitic cuckoos will sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of their own or other species, but will still help to feed the chicks (parental guilt, perhaps?).


Wow. Hard hitting science! Actually, here is the real interesting stuff in those kinda shortish links.

The scientists wanted to see if the call was genetic or learned prenatally. Kleindorfer swapped around 22 eggs. When they hatched, the nestlings used the call taught by their foster mother, not their biological one.

So basically, the baby birds didn't innately know the song. They were taught it by the foster mother while they were still in their eggs. Kinda neat.

Genius in a tiny mother bird, who learned to give her babies a password so they wouldn't die.

Adult bird didn't learn to give her babies anything. This sentence is plain wrong.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:41 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Adult bird didn't learn to give her babies anything. This sentence is plain wrong.
That's true, and something that I think gets quite obscured in the anthropomorphizing:

The "benefit" or evolutionary advantage of this behavior doesn't really apply to the Fairywren hatchlings -- the cuckoo has probably already hatched early and booted them from the nest, if I follow correctly. The mother, on the other hand, benefits by not wasting her resources feeding a cuckoo. Is that accurate?
posted by novelgazer at 10:54 AM on May 30


I initially read this as "Genius is a tiny mother bird" and now I really want to hear a nest of chicks chirping out Liquid Swords.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:01 AM on May 30


I had to stop reading the first link because it was so Science Lite, but I really enjoyed the last link. Isn't nature (via natural selection, of course) clever?
posted by chatongriffes at 11:10 AM on May 30


I do honor MeFites' capacities to examine things for veracity, was hoping there would be delight in this teensie, totally cute bird's solution for saving her hatchlings' lives.

What about this thought? Kant said, Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given, not a predisposition consisting of a skill for something that can be learned by following some rule or other.

Talent and originality are both skills of this Superb Fairy Wren in teaching her unborn children an original password song, pass-note. She teaches it to her husband too. Scientists have determined her skill is not genetic. The pass-note is unique to each Fairy Wren. Yes, ingenious, but it seems to me an act of genius as well that has come to be part of this type of bird's survival.
posted by nickyskye at 11:48 AM on May 30


Don't anthropomorphize animals. They hate that.
posted by evilmomlady at 11:49 AM on May 30 [9 favorites]


It was previously assumed by many that animals did not have emotions, thoughts, feelings, enjoyment of music, friendships, as it was assumed by many that infants had no ability to feel pain and were operated on surgically without anesthesia until quite recently. It was as if the ability to act like an adult human was the only way to consider a creature's capacity for a full range of thinking and feeling.

While I acknowledge that people can and do anthropomorphize animals all the time I think it's also possible that animals were, until fairly recently, considered to do things only on some primitive level. Now when parrots dance to rock music, cats open door knobs, swallows learn how to open automatic doors, a goat and a donkey are cherished companions to each other, I think it's time to consider that animals are not only capable of being merely instinctual. I think many animals are capable of higher thought processes, higher emotional processes, than previously considered.
posted by nickyskye at 12:08 PM on May 30


Even though cuckoo eggs get incubated alongside the wren’s eggs, they don’t have enough time to learn the pass-note. The lessons begin 10 days after the eggs are laid, which gives the wren embryos around 5 days to learn the call. Cuckoo eggs only get about 2 days, meaning that fairy-wrens can leave the cuckoos behind.


This probably isn't the reason that cuckoos don't learn the call by the way. Many passerines, including presumably fairy-wrens, learn songs and calls from their parents/fathers. However, cuckoos are nest parasites and have to sing songs/calls they've never heard before in order to function as adult cuckoos. This means that cuckoos have a benefit from not picking up calls or songs from their (inappropriate species) nest mates or parents. Which is actually the neatest part.

Cuckoos have enough flexibility in their egg patterns that they can reasonably mimic their target species. Presumably, they could also mimic the calls in order to further blend in and take advantage of the free feeding. But they don't have as much flexibility here because they need their song memory to not be spongy so they don't pick up other calls.

Neat!
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:12 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


hydrobatidae: the fourth link says that:
Cuckoo nestlings attempt to guess the pass-note by trying out different calls.
So they may not be listening and learning, but they're certainly not inflexible, either.
posted by agentofselection at 12:19 PM on May 30


Also genius really does seem to be overstating the situation quite a bit.

Gull, penguin, and murre chicks can all recognize their parents because of hearing calls in the egg. The reason for this isn't nest parasitism but colonial living but the principle is the same.

And the link doesn't mention anything about non-passerines. Hope the authors did.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:21 PM on May 30


agentofselection - I'm not sure what that article is showing, but the calls of the cuckoo are innate. They don't have the flexibility of many other passerines. Maybe the young ones are just practicing making noises?
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:24 PM on May 30


hydrobatidae:
I checked out the paper, and the apparent source for that claim is a different paper, "Socially Acquired Host-Specific Mimicry and the Evolution of Host Races in Horsfield'S Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites Basalis" by Langmore et al. (2008).
Langmore says:
If it hatches in the nest of a secondary host such as a thornbill, the cuckoo then modifies its begging call by producing variable notes initially, which are rapidly refined to resemble the calls of the secondary host. In the absence of a model, it seems likely that the calls are refined through reinforcement by host parents, specifically by selective provisioning in response to the more accurately mimetic calls.
So that paper is discussing developmental plasticity to switch from the call of a primary host species to that of a secondary species. I suppose it is possible that all the calls it uses are innate and that it simply switches between several pre-programmed calls, but it does sound as if there is some plasticity there.
posted by agentofselection at 12:58 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


nickyskye: I think many animals are capable of higher thought processes, higher emotional processes, than previously considered.

I agree with your comment 100%, fervently, yet you must admit: it's highly irrelevant here.

NO particular cognitive skills are being displayed here, beyond a certain rote memorization and repetition. Any bird on Earth can do that much.

It's the particular usage of that memorization - to uniquely identify family members versus non-family members - that is the point.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:16 PM on May 30


A lot of human "intelligence" is subconscious or happens without us understanding on a cellular level. It's still a form of intelligence in my opinion. Cellular activity designed to create a positive reaction with a certain amount of awareness of working towards a goal.

I think our thinking about intelligence is extremely infantile compared to how we will be able to conceptualize it over time and with better tools to understand it.

In fact to be honest a lot of human intelligence and choice and will is likely cellular processes we are watching more than governing. And how successful a species is with it's intelligence depends on how you frame success. Doing more work to achieve homeostasis and longevity may or may not reflect greater intelligence. It's possible plants are more evolved than we tend to frame them. They do pretty well despite lacking a nervous system. And likely they don't even have to suffer like we do as beings with a highly sensitive nervous system!

I think it's funny because you could frame this as each bird innately knowing it's family song, or you could frame it as transcription errors. It depends on if you believe we have a will or a purpose or an existence beyond an unfeeling mass of atoms carrying out unfeeling processes that add up to the sensation that we exist despite that "spirit" simply being a scientific phenomena that carries no real emotion such as love or purpose or connection.

I think the universe is alive and vibrant and atoms are filled with purpose, but they can not express their desires, united... they can change the course of the brutal and merciless forces in this universe that dictate complete adherence to the laws of physics.

But I'm just musing.

I do find it interesting how people tend to selectively see themselves or other beings as a bunch of atomic processes, vs sensing feeling beings with an "emotional self" seemingly dependent on the mood. The sense of an emotional self may be a fanciful concept but yet, we are very drawn to it and we feel it as truth. Could it be that it reflects an aspect of our realities, that is in fact scientific? That perhaps life itself is a reflection of billions of atoms working together to create enough energetic force to allow for WILL!!! To seek those states and experiences that one desires! And that life force, carries it's own purpose.

I am channeling the Frozen theme song and unleashing the full extent of my bizarre thoughts on the world. I can't hold it back anymore... mmmhhmmhhmmm.....
posted by xarnop at 2:06 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Talent and originality are both skills of this Superb Fairy Wren in teaching her unborn children an original password song, pass-note. She teaches it to her husband too. Scientists have determined her skill is not genetic. The pass-note is unique to each Fairy Wren. Yes, ingenious, but it seems to me an act of genius as well that has come to be part of this type of bird's survival.

I read in that link where it says that because each bird has a different song, that it can't be innate. It's flimsy reasoning.

Also, this isn't genius as applied to individuals. This is genius as applied to NATURE. Otherwise, we'll be handing out Mensa cards because birds drop shells on rocks to eat the insides.

Now when parrots dance to rock music, cats open door knobs, swallows learn how to open automatic doors, a goat and a donkey are cherished companions to each other, I think it's time to consider that animals are not only capable of being merely instinctual. I think many animals are capable of higher thought processes, higher emotional processes, than previously considered.

No. This is learned behavior. Your parrot is not rocking out because it thinks your john tesh cd is awesome. Otherwise, you'd also think that chimps are dumb because they smoke, and not because they were taught it.

I do honor MeFites' capacities to examine things for veracity, was hoping there would be delight in this teensie, totally cute bird's solution for saving her hatchlings' lives.

Hey, I wouldn't throw up a post on metafilter about Joey and Pacey's relationship without expecting people to be all "who the fuck cares about that cis-centered rich white people show?". So this is pretty much the audience here...people who will be critical of science. That's exactly how science works, and why stuff that's accepted in science is as close to truth as we can get; it survives scrutiny.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:38 PM on May 30


nickyskye: "The Superb Fairy Wren"

Eh, it's ok.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:12 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


It turns out that Australian Plants and Animals Are Low-Down, Dirty Liars.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:31 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


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