The Frontal Cortex

Birds Acting Human

It’s hard to believe that just over fifty years ago psychology was in the firm grip of behaviorism, which denied any semblance of intelligence or emotion in animals. (They were just biological machines.) Talk of anything but stimulus and reward was just sentimental pseudoscience. Then came Chomsky and Goodall and de Waal and a legion of other brave scientists who dared to document the actual behavior of animals. And now we have discoveries like this, in which birds display behavior that seems quintessentially human (at least if you frequent bars and nightclubs):

Emily DuVal, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, found that male lance-tailed manakins display the behavior seen at nightclubs, where a person plays “wingman” or “wingwoman” to help a friend impress a potential mate.

In a study of 457 lance-tailed manakins in Panama, DuVal found repeated instances of two males performing a skilled dance for the benefit of a female bird who was watching. The group performance, however, helped only one of the birds — the alpha male. If only one lance-tailed manakin got to mate, why did the other bird, the beta male, cooperate in the dancing ritual when he had nothing to gain?

In a paper she published in the April issue of the American Naturalist, DuVal found there is evidence that good “wingbirds” are more likely than other birds to become alpha males themselves. What makes the behavior especially interesting is that one lance-tailed manakin might be helping another because some other bird will help the helper down the road. Such behavior suggests an intricate social system where investments pay off in the distant future.


  1. #1 coturnix
    March 20, 2007

    Well, decades before Chomsky and DeWaal, there were Lorenz, Tinbergen and von Frisch, among others, who challenged the behaviorists (who were always much stronger in the USA than elsewhere anyway). The Lerner-Lorenz debates have pretty much killed behaviorism half a century ago.

  2. #2 Enrique
    March 20, 2007

    Turns out song birds seem to be having rudimentary
    dialogues with each other over various types and levels of threat presented by predators. And it would be easy surmise our close relationship to Bononbos witnessing any spring break spectacle.

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