Are Wrens Smarter Than Racists?

Race realists and racial supremacists have many odd notions. For one, they believe humans are separate species, despite all the evidence to the contrary (e.g., unusually low genetic diversity as compared similar species; two random humans are more likely to be genetically similar than two random chimpanzees).

But an even stranger belief is that humans, despite being such a highly social species, are assumed to be incapable of cooperating with other humans who are perceived as different based on modern social constructions of ‘race’. Yet, even ignoring the fact that all humans are of the same species, numerous other species cooperate all the time across large genetic divides. This includes the development of close relationships between individuals of separate species.

So, why do racists believe that ‘white’ Americans and ‘black’ Americans must be treated as separate species and be inevitably segregated in different communities and countries? That particularly doesn’t make sense considering most so-called African-Americans are significantly of European ancestry, not to mention a surprising number of supposed European-Americans in the South that have non-European genetics (African, Native American, etc).

Wrens don’t let racism get in the way of promoting their own survival through befriending other species who share their territory. Do human racists think they have less cognitive capacity than wrens? If that is their honest assessment of their own abilities, that is fine. But why do they assume everyone else is as deficient as they are?

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Birds from different species recognize each other and cooperate
by Matt Wood, University of Chicago

 

Cooperation among different species of birds is common. Some birds build their nests near those of larger, more aggressive species to deter predators, and flocks of mixed species forage for food and defend territories together in alliances that can last for years. In most cases, though, these partnerships are not between specific individuals of the other species—any bird from the other species will do.

But in a new study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, scientists from the University of Chicago and University of Nebraska show how two different species of Australian fairy-wrens not only recognize individual birds from other species, but also form long-term partnerships that help them forage and defend their shared space as a group.

“Finding that these two species associate was not surprising, as mixed species flocks of birds are observed all over the world,” said Allison Johnson, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Nebraska who conducted the study as part of her dissertation research at UChicago. “But when we realized they were sharing territories with specific individuals and responding aggressively only to unknown individuals, we knew this was really unique. It completely changed our research and we knew we had to investigate it.”

Variegated fairy-wrens and splendid fairy-wrens are two small songbirds that live in Australia. The males of each species have striking, bright blue feathers that make them popular with bird watchers. Their behavior also makes them an appealing subject for biologists. Both species feed on insects, live in large family groups, and breed during the same time of year. They are also non-migratory, meaning they live in one area for their entire lives, occupying the same eucalyptus scrublands that provide plenty of bushes and trees for cover.

When these territories overlap, the two species interact with each other. They forage together, travel together, and seem to be aware of what the other species is doing. They also help each other defend their territory from rivals. Variegated fairy-wrens will defend their shared territory from both variegated and splendid outsiders; splendid fairy-wrens will do the same, while fending off unfamiliar birds from both species.

“Splendid and variegated fairy-wrens are so similar in their habitat preferences and behavior, we would expect them to act as competitors. Instead, we’ve found stable, positive relationships between individuals of the two species,” said Christina Masco, PhD, a graduate student at UChicago and a co-author on the new paper.