Pigeon. Illustration: Ryan Berkley

Birds in the News

Birds, They’re Just Like Us!

From junk food addictions to messy divorces, the creatures of the sky share many of our worst habits.

They may be gorgeous beings who jet-set around the world regularly—but deep down, birds are really just like us. Let’s count the ways...

1. They’re junk food addicts.

Sure, gulls chow down on discarded (or pilfered) french fries and sparrows will go after leftover Chinese food. But one type of bird—the Cape Gannet—can actually get addicted to unhealthy food: off the coast of South Africa and Namibia, these birds go to town on the guts and carcasses of unwanted fish that commercial fishing boats dump overboard.

The problem is, this food isn’t as calorically rich as the oily species like sardines and anchovies that make up the birds’ natural prey. And gannet chicks that are fed more “junk” food than real food are much less likely to make it to adulthood. Anchovies and sardines are moving away from gannets’ natural habitats as the planet warms, but—likely because of the accessible junkfood—gannets haven’t moved with them.  (The researchers have recommending fishing boats stop discarding their waste in these areas, but this idea has yet to be enforced via policy changes.)

2. They recognize good art when they see it.

Pigeons can be taught to decipher well-composed paintings from less-successful artistic efforts. Researchers showed the birds 10 “good” and 10 “bad” works of art—the “good” pictures were clear and realistic looking, while the “bad” were dominated by scribbles and ill-defined subjects. The pigeons were given a food reward if they pecked the good artwork, and they learned—after about 22 tries —to peck the good artwork most of the time.

This is just one of pigeons’ many visual talents—they can also be taught to identify photos of human cancer cells and recognize emotions and facial expressions (though appreciating abstract art may be beyond them).

3. They’re meaner when they live in the city.

Yep, city birds get road rage and have a deep hatred of tourists on the subway too. Okay, not exactly, but research has shown that birds that live in the city are more aggressive than birds that live in the country. Cities tend to have more food than the country, and birds there know it—they defend these resources more fiercely than birds in the country.

4. They get divorced.

We’ve all heard the heartwarming stories of the albatrosses who stay with their mates for 50 years or the great tits who would rather turn down food than leave their mates behind. But for many birds—even species who typically develop long-term partnerships—commitment doesn’t always mean happily ever after. Some research has found that flamingos, for example, divorce 99 percent of the time, while piping plovers split up 67 percent of the time. So rejoice, Americans: our 40-ish percent divorce rate may not be so bad.

5. Some of them evenly split parenting duties—to the benefit of their offspring.

Birds, they're so progressive! At least, several species are—for example, zebra finches are excellent at splitting up parenting duties, according to a November study. And this tag-teaming parenting technique is better for chicks: When birds take turns getting food for their babies, they end up feeding the chicks more food and protecting them more effectively than if one parent dominates the feeding process.

6. They’re good at math.

Pigeons can count, but they can also learn that two is bigger than one, and three is bigger than two, and so on. This may not seem like math whiz-level stuff, but this ability to rank numbers had, before scientists discovered it in pigeons, only been observed in primates. Alex, the African grey parrot who has helped shed light on an array of aspects of bird intelligence, could also count up to six, and his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, said he had a “zero-like concept.”

7. They still get excited about the little things.

But even with these human-level skills, birds don’t need much to make them happy—

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