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Cunning Eurasian jays switch food-finding tactics depending on who's watching

Research shows the European Jay alters its food finding habits to fit the social situation (Image: Ken Billington, Focusing on Wildlife)

A new study shows Eurasian jays are clever and socially conscious. The birds demonstrated flexible tactics by switching between two food-finding strategies: storing food and pilfering from other's food stashes. Researchers found the jays' strategy depended on the relative social rank of their competitor.

Jays are members of the corvid family, which includes other noted birdbrains like crows and ravens. Eurasian jays live in woodlands and feed primarily on acorns and other seeds. Past studies have shown the birds' remarkable ability to plan for the future by storing thousands of nuts and returning to the caches later. The birds stashed more of the foods they knew would be unavailable to them later on, demonstrating an ability to plan ahead for their impending needs.

Corvids are also known to remember the location of caches they have seen others make and to steal from them. In the new study, researchers Rachel Shaw and Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge tested Eurasian jay caching and stealing behavior in two social contexts.

In one context, individual jays competed with a dominant bird, while in the other context the same individuals interacted with a subordinate bird. Shaw and Clayton observed how the pairs of birds interacted after introducing a bowl of food, including their favorite acorns, to the test area.

In the presence of a socially dominant competitor, the jays at first did not cache at all, and when they did cache food, they did it in less exposed locations. They were secretive when hiding food and when attempting to steal from the other bird, waiting until the competitor was farther away before trying to approach and steal from their cache.

The same birds, when paired with a socially subordinate bird, cached more food items, moved these items frequently, and boldly stole from their competitor's cache.

In other words, the jays flexibly switched hiding and stealing tactics depending on the social context. Shaw and Clayton suggest the flexible responses indicate the jays' behavior may be based on cognitive strategies, rather than learned or innate rules. This study shows Eurasian jays, while not as social as their crow and raven cousins, demonstrate complex social thinking nonetheless.

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Research shows the European Jay alters its food finding habits to fit the social situation (Image: Ken Billington, Focusing on Wildlife)
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