Observations of the flight paths of pigeons navigating from familiar locations have shown that these birds are able to learn and subsequently follow habitual routes home. It has been suggested that navigation along these routes is based on the recognition of memorized visual landmarks. Previous research has identified the effect of landmarks on flight path structure, and thus the locations of potentially salient sites. Pigeons have also been observed to be particularly attracted to strong linear features in the landscape, such as roads and rivers. However, a more general understanding of the specific characteristics of the landscape that facilitate route learning has remained out of reach. In this study, we identify landscape complexity as a key predictor of the fidelity to the habitual route, and thus conclude that pigeons form route memories most strongly in regions where the landscape complexity is neither too great nor too low. Our results imply that pigeons process their visual environment on a characteristic spatial scale while navigating and can explain the different degrees of success in reproducing route learning in different geographical locations.
The evolution of cooperation is a persistent problem for evolutionary biologists. In particular, understanding of the factors that promote the expression of helping behaviour in cooperatively breeding species remains weak, presumably because of the diverse nature of ecological and demographic drivers that promote sociality. In this study, we use data from a long-term study of a facultative cooperative breeder, the long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus, to investigate the factors influencing annual variation in helping behaviour. Long-tailed tits exhibit redirected helping in which failed breeders may become helpers, usually at a relatives nest; thus, helping is hypothesised to be associated with causes of nest failure and opportunities to renest or help. We tested predictions regarding the relationship between annual measures of cooperative behaviour and four explanatory variables: nest predation rate, length of the breeding season, population-level relatedness and population density. We found that the degree of helping was determined principally by two factors that constrain successful independent reproduction. First, as predicted, cooperative behaviour peaked at intermediate levels of nest predation, when there are both failed breeders (i.e. potential helpers) and active nests (i.e. potential recipients) available. Second, there were more helpers in shorter breeding seasons when opportunities for renesting by failed breeders are more limited. These are novel drivers of helping behaviour in avian cooperative breeding systems, and this study illustrates the difficulty of identifying common ecological or demographic factors underlying the evolution of such systems.
The sun has long been thought to guide bird navigation as the second step in a two-stage process, in which determining position using a map is followed by course setting using a compass, both over unfamiliar and familiar terrain. The animals endogenous clock time-compensates the solar compass for the suns apparent movement throughout the day, and this allows predictable deflections in orientation to test for the compass influence using clock-shift manipulations. To examine the influence of the solar compass during a highly familiar navigational task, 24 clock-shifted homing pigeons were precision-tracked from a release site close to and in sight of their final goal, the colony loft. The resulting trajectories displayed significant partial deflection from the loft direction as predicted by either fast or slow clock-shift treatments. The partial deflection was also found to be stable along the entire trajectory indicating regular updating of orientation via input from the solar compass throughout the final approach flight to the loft. Our results demonstrate that time-compensated solar cues are deeply embedded in the way birds orient during homing flight, are accessed throughout the journey and on a remarkably fine-grained scale, and may be combined effectively simultaneously with direct guidance from familiar landmarks, even when birds are flying towards a directly visible goal.
Theoretical modelling of biparental care suggests that it can be a stable strategy if parents partially compensate for changes in behaviour by their partners. In empirical studies, however, parents occasionally match rather than compensate for the actions of their partners. The recently proposed "information model" adds to the earlier theory by factoring in information on brood value and/or need into parental decision-making. This leads to a variety of predicted parental responses following a change in partner work-rate depending on the information available to parents.
Pigeons home along idiosyncratic habitual routes from familiar locations. It has been suggested that memorized visual landmarks underpin this route learning. However, the inability to experimentally alter the landscape on large scales has hindered the discovery of the particular features to which birds attend. Here, we present a method for objectively classifying the most informative regions of animal paths. We apply this method to flight trajectories from homing pigeons to identify probable locations of salient visual landmarks. We construct and apply a Gaussian process model of flight trajectory generation for pigeons trained to home from specific release sites. The model shows increasing predictive power as the birds become familiar with the sites, mirroring the animals learning process. We subsequently find that the most informative elements of the flight trajectories coincide with landscape features that have previously been suggested as important components of the homing task.
1. Helpers that invest energy in provisioning the offspring of related individuals stand to gain indirect fitness benefits from doing so. First, if the helpers effort is additional to that of the parents (additive) the productivity of the current breeding attempt can be increased. Secondly, if the parents reduce their workload (compensation) this can result in future indirect fitness gains to the helper via increased breeder survival; termed load-lightening. 2. Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) have a cooperative breeding system in which helpers assist kin and parents exhibit both additive and compensatory reactions in the presence of helpers. Offspring from helped nests are heavier and more likely to recruit into the breeding population, thus helpers gain indirect fitness benefits from increasing the productivity of the current breeding attempt. Despite breeders reduction of feeding effort in the presence of helpers, previous investigations found no subsequent increase in breeder survival. 3. The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that load-lightening resulted in indirect fitness benefits for helpers. We used data from a 14-year study to investigate the provisioning rate, survival and future fecundity of male and female long-tailed tits that did and did not receive help at the nest. 4. We found an asymmetrical response to the presence of helpers at large brood sizes. Males reduced their feeding rate more than females, and this differential response was reflected in a significant increase in male survival when provisioning large broods assisted by helpers. We found no evidence of any increase in future fecundity for helped breeders. 5. The finding that males reduce their provisioning rate in the presence of helpers (at large brood sizes) to a greater degree than females, and that this is reflected in an increase in survival rate for males only, implies that the survival increase is caused by the reduction in work-rate rather than a non-specific benefit of a larger group size. 6. The marginal benefits of help for breeder survival are likely to be more difficult to identify than the increased productivity at helped nests, but should not be overlooked when investigating the potential indirect fitness gains that supernumeraries can accrue by helping.
Flight dynamics theories are influenced by two major topics: how birds adapt their flight to cope with heterogeneous habitats, and whether birds plan to use the wind field or simply experience it. The aim of this study was to understand the flight dynamics of free-flying Corys shearwaters in relation to the wind characteristics on the coastal upwelling region of continental Portugal. We deployed recently miniaturised devices-global positioning system loggers to collect precise and detailed information on birds positions and motions. Prevalent winds were blowing from the north-east and adults used those winds by adjusting their flight directions mainly towards north-west and south-west, flying with cross and tail winds, respectively, and avoiding head winds. This is confirmation that Corys shearwaters use a shear soaring flying strategy while exploiting the environment for food: adults foraged mainly with cross winds and their ground speed was not constant during all foraging trips as it changed dynamically as a result of the ocean surface shear winds. During travelling phases, ground speed was strongly influenced by the position of the bird with regard to the wind direction, as ground speed increased significantly with increasing tail wind component (TWC) values. Adults appear to choose foraging directions to exploit ambient wind, in order to improve shear soaring efficiency (cross winding) and exploit diurnal changes in tail wind strength to maximise commuting efficiency. We report, for the first time, precise ground speed values (GPS-derived data) and computed actual flight speed values (using TWC analysis) for Corys shearwater.
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