With the (insert relevant election cycle) coming up, a 2014 publication from Massen et al. reminds us that we are not alone in our affection/affliction for political scheming. No, ravens don’t hold elections or engage in thinly veiled attempts at voter suppression, but they do build relationships and attempt to thwart the alliances of others. Massen’s team observed the interactions of hundreds of individually marked birds and categorized their relationships as either (1) breeding pair with territory, (2) strongly bonded w/o territory, (3) loosely bonded w/o territory or (4) nonbonded. Ravens build bonds by participating in affiliative behavior such as allopreening (mutual grooming), and interrupting these interactions can be risky if the pair fight back. Over six months they recorded affiliative interactions and found that 18.8% wereinterrupted by a third bird, giving rise to their curiosity over the function of these interventions. Given that ravens have been previously shown to track the dominance relationships of others, they wanted to know if there was a relationship between bonding status and the likelihood of being an intervener or being intervened. In both cases they found that there was a significant relationship between the two. Birds who were either pair or strongly bonded were most likely to intervene and those attempting to forge loose bonds were the most likely to be interrupted. The researchers interpreted these results to show that strongly allied birds attempt to preclude the threat of competition by squashing the alliances of future coalitions. Importantly, they were less likely to bother with nonbonded birds since, for now, their social ties are too weak to become threatening. Conversely, they also stayed out of the interactions of other pair or strongly bonded birds since these interventions pose a greater physical risk to the third wheel.
I suspect these results will not be widely accepted since, critically, there is no immediate benefit to the intervener. Embracing the results of this study requires accepting the idea that an animal, especially a bird, is capable of putting future rewards ahead of current risk or losses. Loose bonds are too weak to act as a competitive threat, so this effort on behalf of the intervener is only useful if you assume that those loose bonds will become a threat if allowed to flourish and become stronger over the course of days, weeks or months. Risking a fight now to thwart a relationship that only may be problematic next month is a big temporal leap. As humans, this kind of future planning is an ability we take for granted but it’s quite a cognitive feat. Although the scales are beginning to shift, I imagine we have many more studies to go before results like this are considered representative of the temporal flexibility of ravens and other corvids.
- Jorg J.M. Massen, Georgine Szipl, Michela Spreafico, Thomas Bugnyar. Ravens Intervene in Others’ Bonding Attempts. Current Biology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.073