Social Learning and Antipredator Behavior

Motmots, a group of tropical bird species, instinctively fear poisonous coral snakes. The particular coral snakes that are dangerous to motmots have a specific color pattern - red and yellow bands. When baby motmot chicks are presented with a wooden dowel with red and yellow bands painted on it, the chicks instantly fear it. However, if green and blue bands or even red and yellow stripes -neither of which resemble snakes dangerous to the mot-mot - are painted on a dowel, motmot young no longer treat it like a danger.

The motmot solution to knowing who the enemy is - hardwiring the answer into the genetic code -works well under certain conditions, namely when the predatory species involved are few and constant through time. If, however, there are lots of predators to handle and/or if the kinds of predators are constantly changing, innate fears may be an inadequate or inappropriate solution to the 'know your enemy' problem. Under such conditions, it might pay to learn who the enemy is by observing how others respond to potential threats. This type of antipredator learning has been documented in blackbirds.

Once a flock of blackbirds spot a predator, some of them join together, fly toward the danger, and aggressively attempt to chase it away. Such mobbing behavior often works well enough to force predators to leave the blackbirds' area. Another function of this mobbing behavior may be to help predator-naive blackbirds identify what constitutes a predator. Experiments indicate that when young blackbirds see a particular species being mobbed, they learn that this species is in fact a predator.

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