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Scimitarbills are not very sociable … and while there’s nothing wrong with preferring your own company, it does mean you miss out on the benefits of being gregarious – like having someone watch your back while you forage for food all day. To sidestep these disadvantages of a lonesome lifestyle, scimitarbills have evolved a clever eavesdropping strategy that allows them to benefit from the alarm calls of another bird species. 

“Humans might think eavesdropping is rude, but there's no shame in it if you hail from the avian world. In fact, it's a great way to boost your chances of survival.”

A study published in the British Ecological Society’s Functional Ecology Journal has found that scimitarbills keep tabs on lurking predators by intercepting the alarm calls of another species: the much more gregarious pied-babblers. Rather than going solo, pied-babblers get by with a lot of help from their friends, and they make use of a very effective sentinel system: one member perches above the rest of the group to keep an eye out for danger, leaving the rest free to forage away unruffled. 

2013 09 16 Avian Eavesdropping 01
The southern pied-babbler - blissfully unaware that its communications are being intercepted. Image credit: Ian n. White, Flickr

The study, conducted in South Africa's Kuruman River Reserve by researchers from the University of Western Australia, focused on 18 groups of pied babblers and more than 25 scimitarbill breeding pairs. Thanks to their ‘public information parasitism’ (a.k.a eavesdropping) skills, the scimitarbills were able to able to let their guard down and spend far more time feasting and foraging – in fact, the researchers found that the birds were able to significantly increase the amount of food they consumed each day. 

“Individuals were even able to expand their foraging niche – venturing out to forage in the open, something a solitary individual would not do because they are too exposed to predators,” the study's Dr Amanda Ridley tells the Science Network.

So while we humans think eavesdropping is rude, there's no shame in it if you hail from the avian world. In fact, it's a great way to boost your chances of survival! 

Hat tip Science Network