Science | History | Geography | PSHE

Jackdaws are democrats, scientists reveal

Are animals better at politics than humans? The latest discovery adds to a growing body of evidence that animals run their societies just as well as we do, if not even better. The debate has lasted all day. Each of three male eagles has made his claim to be the female’s mate. But the other birds complain that the process is taking too long. “Hold your tongues there!” demands the judge, Nature. She then says that each type of bird must choose a representative to give their verdict. This is a scene from Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th Century poem The Parliament of Fowls. And strangely, new research suggests that birds do act democratically. To find out how jackdaws all decide to take off at the same time, scientists attached recording devices to trees where the birds roost. They then played their recordings, plus others of high winds, back to the jackdaws. They found that the wind noises had no effect, but the sound of the recorded birds made the real ones take to the air. "When a bird calls, it's casting a vote or signalling it wants to leave," says the team’s spokesman. Whether the flock as a whole agrees depends on two things: how loud the noise is and how quickly it builds up. Once a decision is made, the birds launch within five seconds. Other scientists have studied pigeons. They found that most of the flock share in its decisions, though some birds can be identified as leaders. Animals also act democratically. Eurasian red deer lie down to ruminate, but then get up to search for fresh grazing. Scientists have noticed that the herd starts to move when 60% of adults have stood up. When a colony of bees becomes too big for its hive, half the bees leave – and the choice of where they move to is democratic. Hundreds of scouts are sent out in search of a new location, and each one reports back by performing a dance in front of the other bees. Eventually the swarm makes a group decision. Are animals better at politics than humans? Fowl tactics Yes: They have very straightforward rules which allow them to make a quick decision and stick to it. They manage to do without the deal-making and deceit which play a large part in human politics. No: They can only make very basic decisions. Humans hold very detailed discussions, suggest a wider range of solutions, and adapt themselves more easily to changing circumstances. Or... The two cannot really be compared. Animals act on instinct, whereas decision-making for humans is an intellectual process. “Politics” implies a formal system which animals do not have. KeywordsMale eagles - Known as tercels. A female eagle is called a formel.

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