Oct 14 2015
Imagine a group is thrown together in a new social setting and each member has to figure out where he stands. You’ve experienced this. Remember the first day of high school?
Humans work out their social hierarchy fairly quickly and quietly though, thinking back to high school, some people pick fights to establish dominance.
Like humans, monk parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) also maintain a social hierarchy. Researchers at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) wondered how the birds figured out their pecking order so they threw together two new flocks and watched what happened.
At first the birds had no hierarchy and quietly assessed each others’ rank without fighting. After about a week the major rankings had shaken out and some of them started to fight.
For 24 days the humans kept track of the parakeets’ interactions, carefully noting who fought and who won. Interestingly, many birds didn’t fight and even those who did seemed to pick their battles.
Analysis of more than 2,300 interactions showed that the parakeets kept track of who won and lost and extrapolated the rankings to figure out their nearest competitors and those not worth challenging. They only bothered to fight if they were close in rank and couldn’t determine it by extrapolation. For example,
Able and Charlie know they’re both stronger than Baker (no fight necessary) so they must be roughly equal but don’t know who’s best unless they fight … except …
Dirk beat up Able yesterday and Charlie beat Dirk. By inference, this makes Charlie better than Able. After only two fights the pecking order is: Charlie > Dirk > Able > Baker.
This kind extrapolation involves a lot of math (logic) and is much harder to do in large groups but the birds are so smart that they avoid fights by doing the math in their heads.
Math comes in handy, even in social settings. There’s a good reason it’s taught in high school. 😉
(photo by Greg Matthews, courtesy National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis press release)
p.s. For more information on why monk parakeets fight, see this blog from BrooklynParrots.com: Why Exactly Do Monk Parakeets Fight
p.p.s. Monk parakeets (also called Quaker parakeets) are “agricultural pests” in many states. In Pennsylvania they’re illegal to own and are removed when found in the wild. This is not the case in New York where monk parakeets hang out near JFK Airport, as shown in Gintarus Baltusis’ photo below.
Can you see this group doing math?