It may sound impossible for a bird to master fire enough to actually commit arson, but Rooks in the United Kingdom have learned how to take discarded cigarettes and use them to accomplish an incredibly technical task they would have normally have been unable to perform. And an unfortunate side effect is they may burn down a few houses.
Birds have learned through adaptation how to utilize discarded cigarette butts and perform a comical and almost ritualized looking dance in order to rid themselves of mites and other infesting insects. The smoke from a cigarette is deadly to many types of parasites infesting the birds wings, and they therefore find a location safe for the birds and wrap their wings around the smoke killing the parasites. The incredible feat of adaptation suggests they may be far more intelligent than we originally thought. And it’s not simply in the United Kingdom that the behavior has caught on.
But there is a downside for humans if birds are waiting around smokers to collect their still burning cigarettes. Since the birds understand only the basics of fumigating their own feathers, whenever a bird no longer finds a cigarette useful they will simply leave it burning wherever they go. And occasionally this can cause problems. If a bird flying over a dried garden in the middle of summer were to drop its cigarette into the undergrowth, the fire could spread and ultimately cause massive damage to the homeowner. Or if it were to find itself seeking shade while fumigating its wings beneath a gas station’s overhang the results could be even more disastrous. Since birds don’t understand no smoking signs, they have the potential to fly into hazardous areas without knowing the potential for fire.
In the Maldive islands, birds taking up the habit have been known to drop their embers on the roofs of thatched houses, setting the dry material aflame and causing tremendous property damage. And with this learned behavior spreading so much like wildfire, we may soon be facing more situations like it. Is an army of fire dropping birds something to worry about? Will smokers face additional responsibilities requiring them to stamp out their cigarettes before flicking them? Or is this an example of a story that gains exposure because of its unusual nature while having no real impact on the world around us?
Learned behavior in the animal kingdom is different from natural selection (evolution.) Adaptation occurs within an animal’s lifetime and can either be taught or derived from an environmental influence. Birds have not been bred to depend on smoke for fumigation, but they have learned it. Ultimately, however, while it may provide comfort and the illusion of clean wings, smoke and tar on the wings can actually pose major health risks to the animals as they age just like humans. Feathers are particularly at risk for complications due to smoke exposure. Will a new evolutionary trait arise from this to make birds avoid smoke even when it seems comforting?