While many species are quick to stick to their own kind, some birds have figured out that they can benefit from getting friendly with other creatures. Bird symbiosis is a way that certain species are able to safeguard health, protect nesting grounds, and boost nutritional intake. The spectrum of symbiosis is quite varied, with some bird species forming partnerships with other birds, but also with other animals.
What is Symbiosis?
Symbiosis is the interaction with—and sometimes reliance on—another species for an organism’s benefit. The Animal Kingdom is full of symbiotic relationships underwater, on ground, and in the air. Naturally, some species have formed close relationships because of shared ecosystems. There is always a certain level of give and take in symbiotic relationships. Sometimes the scale of profit isn’t so balanced. We categorize symbiosis by whether both organisms benefit, if one benefits without affecting the other, or if one benefits at the other’s expense. Many symbiotic arrangements are incredibly one-sided–think of a parasitic tick living off of a host mammal. But not all symbiotic setups are such. Birds, in particular, have found several ways to develop symbiotic relationships that are mutually beneficial for both creatures.
Birds + Other Animals
There are several examples of birds who have established positively beneficial relationships with other animals.
Egrets & Land Mammals
Often spotted striking a majestic pose near the water’s edge, many birdwatchers consider egrets a symbol of solitude and reflection. However, cattle egrets are much more adventurous than we often assume, exemplifying a prime example of symbiosis between birds and other animals. Cattle egrets will perch calmly on the backs of large land mammals, including cows, oxen, and buffalo. These birds wait for the cattle to kick up grasshoppers and bugs from the ground. Cattle egrets also pick off and eat harmful ticks found on their hooved chauffeurs. Not only does this arrangement provide an easy meal for the egrets, but it also helps remove dangerous and bothersome parasites from the cattle’s hides.
Plovers & Crocodiles
How far would you go for a fast meal? The Egyptian plover is willing to venture into the open mouth of a crocodile! Crocodiles can get bits and pieces of mealtime leftovers wedged in their teeth. When old food lingers for too long, it can cause pain and swelling inside the mouth. Plovers and crocodiles have managed to come to an agreement that benefits them both. Crocodiles will wait with their mouths agape, allowing the little birds to swiftly fly in, perch on a tooth, and pick out scraps of food. Talk about a natural way to floss!
Birds + Birds
Some birds will build symbiotic relationships with other birds for their own benefit.
Cuckoo & Various Host Birds
Masters of manipulation, cuckoos regularly hoodwink their way into symbiotic relationships with a number of unsuspecting host birds. After spotting a perfect target, often a flycatcher or sunbird, the male cuckoo will cause a ruckus in order to bait the nesting bird into chasing it far from the nest. Meanwhile, the female cuckoo will swoop in to the deserted nest, kick out an egg, and replace it with an egg of her own. She then flies off before the nesting bird returns. Usually unaware of the imposter egg, the host bird will then do all the work of incubation until the cuckoo hatches. This tricky switcheroo is essentially a symbiotic relationship that the host bird doesn’t even know of until it’s too late.
Hawk & Hummingbird
Relatively recently, black-chinned hummingbirds in Arizona were seen building nests very close to hawk nests. Hummingbirds are typically safe from hawks, as they’re too small to be considered a valuable meal. Nesting near hawks, consequently, is a smart strategy for hummingbirds. That's because potential predators, like squirrels and snakes, have no interest in facing off with a hawk. When researchers looked closer at the nesting patterns, though, they discovered that the hummingbirds were building their nests in cone-shaped areas just beneath the hawks’ nests, rather than simply around the general area.
And here’s the plot twist: further observation suggests that this layout was is deliberate attempt to seek protection from a specific threat–another bird! Mexican Jays, known for showing aggression towards hummingbirds, typically steer clear of hawks. The jays fly at a higher elevation near the nests, avoiding the potential for hawks to swoop down on them. By staying underneath hawk nests, hummingbirds are able to avoid being spotted by jays flying overhead. This symbiotic behavior bolsters protection for vulnerable hummingbird nests. Without a doubt, we can learn a lot by observing how certain birds interact with others for the wellbeing of their own species. Bird symbiosis, whether mutually beneficial or not, highlights just how interconnected we all are.