Bird Grammar, Foxes And Ticks, And Animal Royalties

10:21 minutes

A spotted sandpiper. Photo by John Sutton/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Order also matters when it comes to human language. If you move one word in a sentence, the entire meaning may change. Scientists have found that grammar rules apply when it comes to bird calls too.  Journalist Brandon Keim, author of “The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories from the Living World,” fills us in on this story and other short subjects in science.

[The 2017 Audubon Photography Awards are in, and the winners are a real hoot.]

Segment Guests

Brandon Keim

Freelance journalist Brandon Keim is a blogger for Anthropocene Magazine based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, a special on the upcoming solar eclipse. Where to view it, how to see it safely, and physicist Carlo Rovelli joins us to talk about the Eclipse experiment in 1919 that proved Einstein was right and made him an instant celebrity.

But first, are you packing up the car and the kids for that last summer camping trip? You’ve got your tent, your sleeping bag, and if you’re headed to the deep woods, maybe your tick repellent? Researchers are studying a more natural tick defense, the fox. Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Brandon Keim is here to bring us that story. He’s a journalist and author of the new book The Eye of the Sandpiper, Stories From the Living World. He joins us here in our community studios. Welcome back.

BRANDON KEIM: Wonderful to see you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You always write about animals. And this fits Friday in that, how would foxes help prevent tick-borne diseases.

BRANDON KEIM: Well, some ecologists have thought that it would be by eating rodents. And now, young ticks feed on rodents, and that’s where they pick up the diseases that eventually are transmitted to us. And so the idea is that maybe more predators means less rodents, means less tick-borne disease.

And this idea was put to the test in the Netherlands, where researchers led by Tim Hofmeister, and they monitored predator populations. So foxes and also several species of weasel at 20 sites across the country. And at these sites, they also trapped rodents and counted the ticks on them.

And what they found is where there were more rodents, there were up to 80% fewer ticks. And then the ticks that were there were much less likely to carry disease. An amazing thing. But, you know, what was really interesting about that is, there weren’t necessarily fewer rodents. It seemed that having predators around made them change their behavior so they didn’t wander around so much, they stayed home, they didn’t pick up ticks, and that’s what broke the cycle of infection.

IRA FLATOW: And this is not arguing for importing more foxes.

BRANDON KEIM: Well, I think–


BRANDON KEIM: I think it’s arguing for making our landscapes much more welcoming places for foxes and weasels, and owls, and other creatures that eat rodents.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s move on to your next story. There’s an intriguing idea about paying animals royalties for their images. So if you want to take a picture of an animal for profit, for example, you’ll pay for its survival.

BRANDON KEIM: That’s the idea.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting.

BRANDON KEIM: So this comes from researchers at the University of Oxford and their wildlife conservation research unit. And they point out that, now, if a company is going to use an image of an animal– I’m sorry, if a company is going to use a work of art, then they pay the artist.


BRANDON KEIM: It just makes sense. But if they use an image of an animal, the animals don’t see anything. And of course, you know, our culture is awash in images of animals, logos and icons, and mascots and patterns. And so, you know, what if we kick something back to them?

IRA FLATOW: How would that work? Is there a practical way to do that?

BRANDON KEIM: Well, the example that they give is with the English Premier League soccer. Now, the league’s logo is a crowned lion. And a crowned lion on every officially licensed soccer jersey that sold. So, you know, what if just 1% of sales went to lion conservation. You could do a world of good with that.

IRA FLATOW: This kind of reminds me of the case of the monkey who took a selfie with the photographer’s camera.

BRANDON KEIM: You know, there’s some overlap there. And at the base of it is the idea that the animals have an interest. And we can, I think, find creative ways of respecting that interest.

IRA FLATOW: Do you find yourself a spokesperson for animals, sort of?

BRANDON KEIM: Oh. I do like that though.


Maybe I’d get a t-shirt out of it.

IRA FLATOW: There are some ethical and practical complications of this idea.

BRANDON KEIM: Well, you know, we wouldn’t want to, let’s say, have animal images used only by people who are wealthy enough to afford the royalties, that would be a terrible thing. But I think, when we’re talking about English Premier League soccer, or a sports team, the San Jose Sharks, shouldn’t they spend as much on actual sharks as a backup goalie.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what about everybody who uses an image on the internet, all those animal images. If you– what if you paid a penny or something like that? That’s still quite a bit of pocket change, isn’t it?

BRANDON KEIM: It would add up to a tremendous amount. And I think it’s just a way of giving back to creatures whose lives really enrich our own.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to one idea about grammar rules for birds. When they chirp, they have grammar rules? When they speak?

BRANDON KEIM: Yes. As do we, of course. Now, word order, let’s say, if I say, “the open door”, it means a very different thing from “open the door”, or I say, “door the open”, that doesn’t mean anything at all. And so researchers Toshitaka Suzuki and Michael Griesser for the last several years, they’ve been studying parus minor, the Japanese great tit. It’s a small songbird in the same family as our chickadees.

And what they’ve found is that these birds will recombine their calls in new ways to produce new meanings. But if you reverse the order, then they don’t have any meaning. Order matters as much to them as it does to us.

IRA FLATOW: So like if we reverse the words in a sentence it would be just a jumble of words. If you reverse the song that they’re singing.

BRANDON KEIM: Exactly. Or the calls that they make.

IRA FLATOW: The calls that they’re making. This shows then that the calls are not just alarms. They’re actually conveying some information.

BRANDON KEIM: Yeah. In the study that I’m covering here, it’s two specific calls, the alert call and the approach call. And they’ll combine these. And alert and approach, which is what they give when they are getting a gang together, let’s say, to drive off predators. But if you reverse it, approach and then alert, that’s their “door the open”, it doesn’t mean anything.

And I just find it extraordinary that these small common birds possess sophistication of communication that for a long time, people thought only humans did.

IRA FLATOW: Could they– do they actually identify which predator might be?

BRANDON KEIM: I don’t know about these birds in particular, but another species, the honey-eater, there was another study on them recently, where it showed that they had different words for airborne predators, or predators on the ground.

And in a way, I think it’s wonderful. It’s sort of easy to decipher predator calls because you can show them a predator and see what they say and figure out what they mean. But of course, there’s so many other calls that we haven’t yet deciphered. And it’s fun to think about what they could be talking about.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve written a lot about animals. Do you think we don’t give them enough credit for intelligence?

BRANDON KEIM: I think in the past no, but we’re getting there. It’s really an extraordinary moment for the study of animal minds. And research like this is just coming out every week and it’s showing us that we live in a world that’s full of intelligence, and only some of it is human.

IRA FLATOW: So what fascinates you the most about all this?

BRANDON KEIM: I think it’s the ability to imagine ourselves in the animals’ shoes, so to speak. So the more you understand about the mind of a hummingbird, then you can imagine what it is to build nests from spider webs. And then get together with your friends and fly across oceans. And then, what I find equally fascinating is, well, what do we do with these insights? Now that we understand them, what does that mean for the way we live our own lives?

IRA FLATOW: And when did you first discover you had such a great interest in animals?

BRANDON KEIM: I think as a kid playing with caterpillars.


BRANDON KEIM: Yeah. Then I’m just lucky enough that it became my job, eventually.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk more about some animals that– what would you like to know most about animals that you don’t know yet? What is there to discover?

BRANDON KEIM: I think what I’ve been really fascinated by recently is the collective decision-making among animals. So how do groups of animals decide what to do. And one of the studies that I just saw, it had to do with decision-making in groups of buffalo and how to decide where to go.

And it turns out that– so one female will stand up and look in one direction, and another female will stand up and look in another direction. And the group will, you know, come to a consensus of sort of splitting the difference between the suggested directions. And that’s how they go. And I think with animal intelligence studies, where moving from studying the minds of individual animals to how they interact with one another and how they live in societies, essentially. And I think that is just such a fertile ground for research.

IRA FLATOW: And where does the money for this research come from?

BRANDON KEIM: Mostly from governments, from the National Science Foundation, from other funders of research and, if I can take this moment to make a plug–

IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

BRANDON KEIM: –for the importance of federal sponsored research, it’s so essential to find out more about the world we live in and the creatures around us that we support scientists who are studying this. And now more than ever, that’s really important.

IRA FLATOW: Why? Why now more than ever?

BRANDON KEIM: There’s a lot of people out there who have called for a reduction in science funding and of course not just talking about the National Science Foundation and animal research, but also the National Institutes of Health and health research. And, you know, this is– the government is what gets this done.

There is, of course, a great role for private enterprise as well. But companies don’t have the resources that governments do. And this research is being done for all of us. It’s benefiting our health, in the case of the NIH, or we’re talking about the National Science Foundation, these are the people who are embodying our curiosity as a society.

IRA FLATOW: It’s important.

BRANDON KEIM: Very much.

IRA FLATOW: And as a culture to understand this.

BRANDON KEIM: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to have to take a break. Thank you for staying a little longer and talking with us.

We’re talking to Brandon Keim, author of The Eye of the Sandpipers, Stories From the Living World. Thanks again.

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim is a producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.