During nesting season, some birds will nest close to larger birds, the idea being that the bigger birds' presence will discourage other bigger birds from raiding their nests. The little ones get a bit of nest defense on the cheap, thanks to the big ones.
But how cheap is it, really? Researcher Rhea Esposito, from from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, wanted to know whether the smaller birds paid a food cost, losing out on meals to their larger neighbors.
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A trio of corvids -- those super-sharp birds whose intelligence and problem-solving skills have been well documented -- in Jackson Hole, Wyo. made for the perfect test subjects. Magpies in the area tended to nest near bigger crows, which offer tough defenses of their own nests against even bigger ravens.
Do the magpies pay a food penalty for the indirect protection?
Esposito held what she termed "Cheetos challenges," tests of breeding pairs based around the orange snack loved by people and, apparently, magpies and crows.
In the first challenge, she set out Cheetos near the nests of breeding pairs of both birds and then let the fun begin.
For sheer speed of approach it was magpies all the way (video below). They descended upon the curly treats some 20 seconds faster than the crows. The crows, for their part, tended to exercise more caution around the new, possibly suspicious items.