Bird “Mobbing”: Self-Conservation in Action

Bird “Mobbing”: Self-Conservation in Action

I’ve long enjoyed a little light birding as a hobby — but I’ve gotten much more serious about it since moving both home and business to the Frontenac Arch Biosphere and incredibly species-rich area of Canada. Consequently, I’ve also become more interested in the mechanics of conservation — and a recent article in Nautilus introduced me to an aspect of bird self-protection that I’d never considered before.
It’s pretty neat: turns out, the behaviour known as “mobbing” (when groups of smaller birds harass and drive away larger predators from an area) has an important social aspect. Avian wildlife ecologist Katie Sieving (University of Florida) characterizes mobbing as, on the surface, full of risk. The activity calls attention to the birds doing the mobbing, and is distracting enough that another predator could swoop in and pick off a meal with almost no resistance. But chatty, loud, active bird species — in eastern North America, the species is often the titmouse — serve as an early warning system for many species around them, contributing to a general understanding that the area is a “good neighbourhood.” Other species (including small mammals) literally “eavesdrop” on the titmice, and:
“[t]his eavesdropping turns out to be adaptive. Multiple studies have demonstrated that social and talkative bird species, the ones most likely to initiate mobbing, improve the survival of the birds around them. Titmice, tits, chickadees, fulvettas: They’re tiny birds with big mouths, and wherever they live, less outspoken species are drawn to them, and eat better, have more babies, and live longer. Sieving says, ‘We don’t know if it’s a kind of parasitism’ — that is, the bolder species are actually harmed by the shyer species’ use of their vigilant habits; ‘or if it’s just commensalism’ — the shyer species benefit, but the bolder species are not affected.

Either way, these dynamics seem essential to community structure.”
This behaviour is so valued by other species that they will follow their virtual canaries in the mine to other locations — which is helping scientists refine the efficacy of wilderness corridors, and other human-created strategies for bird survival in an anthropocentric world.
Right now, as mentioned earlier, I’m having a great time working with the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre on a series of workshops on using tech to help identify all the amazing birds that call our home “home.” I’m hoping, at the next session when I’m chatting with an attendee, or if I’m out and about, to catch a little “mob” activity — giving me the chance to see such a seemingly straightforward behaviour in a much more far-reaching light!

The Only Thing (Really) Separating Us from the Animals is our Ability to Accessorize

samson and other animals

As a devoted dog person, I have long thought that my two pack-mates, Jill and Samson try to communicate with me vocally. (Jill especially, who is a howler more that a barker, can be quite articulate in her criticisms when I’m a bit too slow getting her dinner ready!) But, of course, they can’t really be capable of conversation, can they? They’re dogs — and research has proven that even primates who are animals more closely related to us don’t possess throat and mouth structures that allow for speech.
That was the prevailing idea even two months ago; but new research is now calling into question humanity’s monopoly on intelligible speech. First, scientists out of the University of Vienna and Princeton University tested live macaques’ vocal tracts and found them to be capable of replicating the sounds needed for human speech. (The previously accepted research that said they weren’t was based on dissections of deceased specimens.) Along with their study, published in ScienceAdvances, the team released audio of what a macaque, if it also had the necessary neural capacity, would sound like speaking English. (Bonus questioning-how-different-we-truly-are points by having it ask “Will you marry me?”!)
Now, a French team who studied baboons, not macaques, has discovered that they too are naturally able to produce all the distinct vowel sounds found in human languages. That indicates that the ability to speak is more widely dispersed among our animals relatives, and may have been cooking in our genetic code since before our split from other primates. More work from the Max Planck Institute supports this too:
“Whatever sounds make up a vocal repertoire — vowels, consonants, grunts or basic barks — humans were once thought the only primate able to control their voices to any significant extent. Other animals were thought to make sounds like you yelp when you touch an iron: as pure reflex.

But in a 2015 study, [cognitive scientist affiliated with the Max Planck Institute Marcus] Perlman and a team of researchers documented how a 280-pound gorilla named Koko had been trained to cough, blow into a recorder and make several other noises at will.

His team’s study was followed up last year, when an orangutan named Rocky at the Indianapolis Zoo was trained to control something approximating a voice.

‘He was able to listen to a human make a vocalization and able to match the frequency of that,’ said Rob Shumaker, who is the zoo’s executive vice president and co-authored the study. ‘Prior to this study with Rocky, most of the conversation was saying this is a uniquely human event.’”

Some folks are getting excited about the possibilities of other, non-human species’ capacity for speech — but still recognize that a parrot asking for a cracker, or cat yelling “No!”  would not shed light on the relation between our evolution and our ability to make ourselves understood. I’d be happy if it would shed light on exactly what Jill is cursing me with when I chastise her for opening the front door in the middle of the night. But we’ll start with this exciting development with primates first, and see how it goes!

Organizational Citizenship Behaviour: A Hidden Form of Burnout

organizational citizenship

A study out of the School of Management and Business at King’s College London has proven something that, anecdatally, also makes a lot of sense — that conscientious, above-and-beyond-type employees, who are successful at their jobs because of this drive, also experience significant emotional exhaustion, and struggle to keep a work-life balance.
Participants in the study, all workers in a UK bank’s inbound call-centre, reported feelings of being drained and “used up.” This was often because of workplace policies, that, in today’s age of tenuous employment with vaguely defined boundaries, called on participants to go beyond their job descriptions.
While participants were frequently rewarded for their “organizational citizenship behaviour,” in the form of being considered for raises, job advancement, and being thought of as generally dependable, this goodwill had a dark side.
“Conscientious workers have been noted for their dependability, self-discipline and hard work, and their willingness to go beyond the minimum role requirements for the organization. They are also said to make a greater investment in both their work and family roles and to be motivated to exert considerable effort in both activities (not wanting to “let people down”), thus increasing work-family conflict and leaving them with little resource reserve. […]
Our study shows that a possible overfulfillment of organizational contributions can lead to emotional exhaustion and work-family conflict.  […] Managers are prone to delegate more tasks and responsibilities to conscientious employees, and in the face of those delegated responsibilities conscientious employees are likely to try to maintain consistently high levels of output. […] The consequences, however, may be job-related stress and less time for family responsibilities.” 
I do wonder if the fact that they drew from a pool of employees in an already emotional-labour heavy industry made the study’s results even starker. It will be interesting to see if further research into other types of work, as the study’s conclusion calls for, might uncover the same trends. I know that in my working life, I myself have seen firsthand proof of the adage “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” This study shows that, similarly, “If you want something done well ask a conscientious person” — but maybe now we have a responsibility to think about the personal fallout of that request.