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The Bird That Can Picture Its Predators

“Snake!”

Something wrong?
Something wrong? Takashi Hososhima/CC-by 2.0

If someone shouts “fire!” you probably envision the smoke and flickering flames, whether or not you’re close to a blaze. Humans are able to rifle through a mental card catalog to match words with images. Turns out, we’re not the only creatures who do so.

A clutch of other creatures ring alarms to warn their kin about danger. Yellow-bellied marmots whistle, trill, and chuck; the call of the black-fronted titi monkey is embedded with information about a predator’s location and size. Toshitaka Suzuki, of the Center for Ecological Research at Kyoto University, knew that the Japanese tit sounded specific calls to caution its neighbors about snakes, but he wasn’t sure whether the birds could visualize the threat.

To test this, Suzuki queued up recordings of alarm calls and enlisted a stick as a makeshift snake. When he sounded the snake-specific alarm, he also slithered the stick along the ground or up a tree trunk, to mimic a snake’s movements.

The birds went about their routine business when the alarm wasn’t snake-specific, and ignored a stick that didn’t seem sufficiently serpentine. When the call indicated trouble and the snake looked sufficiently stick-like, though, the birds swooped into action, apparently regarding the little piece of wood like a predator. To deter the stick-snake, the birds hovered and stretched their wings and tails.

To Suzuki, that reaction suggested that the birds knew what to look for. “Before detecting a real snake, tits retrieve its visual image from snake-specific alarm calls and use this to search out snakes,” Suzuki wrote in his new study, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There’s a whole heap that researchers don’t know about what it feels like to be anything other than human, but this study adds to an increasingly towering body of work examining animal cognition. We don’t know what goes through the bird’s mind when it matches a call with an image, and it’s often dangerous to lean into the tendency to anthropomorphize. We can’t say, for instance, whether the bird is defiant or fearful—but it does seem to know a snake when it hears about one.