Swallows suss out motion detectors, learn to open doors

I’m not sure exactly where this is (the accents and the word “Centre” makes me think Canada), but it appears to show that swallows have learned how to open doors by setting off motion detectors. I can’t see any other interpretation.  If that’s true, then it must have started by accident, with a swallow managing to connect its earlier position with its observation that a door opened.

 

h/t: Jim E.

41 Comments

  1. Posted May 25, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Apparently U Victoria, BC. Extremely beautiful place.

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted May 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I think UVic has been featured here before but I can’t find the post from the search box. It was when they were getting lots of flack over their attempts to solve their feral bunny problems.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 27, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

        attempts to solve their feral bunny problems

        Don’t they have a canteen on campus?
        Or do they have a lot of bunny-huggers on their campus too?

    • Posted May 25, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      Definitely Canada from the way he says “out”.

  2. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    B. F. Skinner found pigeons were easily trained to peck levers for food, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Still kind of neat, though. I’ve seen sparrows go in and out through the automatic doors at YVR before. I’ll have to watch more carefully to see if they are able to set the detectors off themselves. I’ve always assumed they were reliant on human staff to open the doors for them. They nest in the high ceilings out of reach and out of the weather.

    • Posted May 25, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      They (Skinner?) also found that if the food arrived randomly, the birds would “teach themselves” a remarkable variety of initially random movements – rituals, if you like – that the arrival of food had reinforced.

      This has always strongly reminded me of religion. It makes cargo cults of them all.

      But haven’t we also been programmed by the doors themselves to walk towards them and expect them to open, rather than reaching for the handles? What are the swallows doing different from us?

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted May 25, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

        Dawkins made the same point in The God Delusion, only I am pretty sure it was about chickens. I would like to learn more about this.

        • cremnomaniac
          Posted May 26, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

          Mark, there are many books on the topic. If you want a thorough understanding you might read “Science and Human Behavior” by B.F.Skinner. Not a light read, but its the first book assigned to most students of the field. If you want something more basic, a search on Google results in too many books to name.

          One last thought about the swallows and behavioral adaptation. It astounds me that evolutionary scientist understand so little about Behavior Analysis and operant behavior. Other fields of psychology and psychologist disparage the value of Skinner’s work and most other Radical Behaviorists, but they are ignorant. There is no model of behavior that works better in the context of evolution and adaptation. The two fields are intimately tied together. The value of a physical adaptation can not be fully exploited without behavioral adaptation (think of Darwin’s finches). To fully understand evolution operant behavior can’t be excluded or overlooked, as it seems to be.

      • cremnomaniac
        Posted May 26, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        I’m glad someone mentioned skinner.
        When consequences are random (i.e. reinforcement, SR+) birds develop what is termed superstitious behavior. They may learn to head bob, turn 360 degrees, or any number of assorted behaviors. They learn to repeat the behavior until reinforcement is available. Of course, it has nothing to do with the behavior as the is non-contingent.

        In the case of these swallows Behavior Analysis explains it perfectly. The doors were installed; a bird attempts to exit at the same location it once did; the door opens after a small delay, and Sr+ is provided.

        The bird only needs to learn that there is a delay after approaching the door sufficiently close. This is referred to as contingency shaped behavior. The bird has now learned a new operant behavior.

        It’s a classic example. Nothing too mysterious here. The uninitiated want to say the birds learned to open doors, or pigeons learn to read, not really. Their behavior is shaped by the environment as they learn to behave in a manner that alters that environment to produce reinforcing consequences.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 27, 2014 at 4:56 am | Permalink

      the automatic doors at YVR before

      Ummm, I’ve got YYR i nmy memory as being an airport I passed through routinely a few years ago (Halifax or StJohns?), so I’m guessing another airport?

      They nest in the high ceilings out of reach and out of the weather.

      Us mammals mostly don’t realise how lucky we were when the non-avian dinosaurs got killed-off at the end of the Cretaceous. (/self : Carefully not taking a position on either the impactor or the volcanism.)

  3. Posted May 25, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant!

  4. anthrosciguy
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    It looked accidental to me.

    Maybe I’m biased because of my experiences with swallows getting into the house when I lived in California. They couldn’t even figure out how to fly slightly lower to get out the doors we’d open for them. They’d fly too high over and over to the point they’d drop to the ground from exhaustion. We’d have to drive them toward the one door that was by a lower ceiling.

    Since then my feeling has been that swallows, unlike many other birds, are not too bright.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted May 26, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      I haven’t seen swallows indoors, but that sounds like the behaviour of microbats inside a house. I don’t think that it necessarily impugns their general intelligence; they might just as well think you’re pretty dumb because you can’t catch enough mosqitoes for a good meal.
      But of course, the swallows in the vid are nesting in a good sheltered spot (as they do) and flying in and out of those doors all day long. How could that be accidental? What, EVERY time?

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Certainly looks purposeful to me.

      What species of swallow are you talking about? The ones in the vid are barn swallows, long adapted to human constructs, and used to ducking through doors.

      I’ve certainly had other bird species exhibit the behavior you describe, when they fly into our garage. Even with the double-wide door fully open they will not dip just slightly down to get out. We usually have to wait till evening, when they roost in the dark, capture them, and release them in the morning.

  5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m convinced. It was easy to swallow…

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 25, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      Rim shot!

  6. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my interpretation: the swallows have learned that doors sometimes open spontaneously. So if you’re flying toward the door and it’s not open, circle around and try again. My guess is that they don’t see their circling behavior as a causal factor in opening the door; it’s all serendipity to them.

    So the control experiment would be to set up a door without a motion sensor, programmed to open frequently but randomly, and see if the birds behave any differently.

    • Posted May 25, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      As above, I’m guessing that the swallows would start crossing themselves, genuflecting and (not to be christianocentric), prostrating themselves and adopting the lotus position.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 27, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

        A swallow in the lotus position?
        Video, or it didn’t happen!

    • Greg Esres
      Posted May 25, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      “So if you’re flying toward the door and it’s not open, circle around and try again. ”

      These birds fly at a closed door, then retreat and circle. If they were merely waiting for door to randomly open, they should start off circling, then fly through the door when it opened.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted May 25, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        To my eye it doesn’t look like they’re taking up a holding pattern waiting for the door to open. It looks more like they just try the door repeatedly until they catch it in an open state. But I grant that this is a subjective judgment on my part.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 26, 2014 at 1:09 am | Permalink

      “So the control experiment would be to set up a door without a motion sensor, programmed to open frequently but randomly, and see if the birds behave any differently.”

      Or see how many people, conditioned to expect the doors to open, walk straight into them…

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 26, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Been there…

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I choose to believe that swallows are now learning how to control our machines. Next they will be learning the button combination to our automatic garage doors, and so on. People better change their ebay passwords pretty soon (again!)

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted May 26, 2014 at 5:04 am | Permalink

      Those urban Peregrines may be watching over your shoulder when you’re at the ATM. Hence all those surveillance cameras, so you can check when they’re looking the other way before tapping in your PIN.

  8. ladyatheist
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    The more I learn about birds (including my own pet bird) the more I think “bird brain” should be considered a compliment.

  9. Posted May 25, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I think the birds have figured out how the doors operate. They must find the place to be a very safe shelter, with a lot of predators being kept at bay.

    There’ve been a lot of smart crow videos posted here, but I don’t remember seeing this one before.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whJrHXl455U

  10. BilBy
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Smart or not? Just to be sure, let me be the first to welcome our new hirundine overlords

  11. lanceleuven
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    This is how it starts. Then they enslave us!

  12. Nance Cedar
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    This is how we would constantly get birds flying around the prstore I worked at years ago!

  13. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    I wonder what the cost of those doors being actuated several hundred times a day is?
    Might be cheaper to make a big swallow entry/exit hole!

    • jesse
      Posted May 26, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      …or just prop the doors open during breeding season. I bet the mechanism will prematurely break or wear out.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 27, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        That’s one of the points that occurred to me while waiting for the next 3 seconds to download.
        It’s as purposeful as the seagulls of Aberdeen walking into a shop, picking a bag of crisps off the shelf, and walking out to eat the crisps in open air.

        • Posted May 27, 2014 at 5:08 am | Permalink

          Video or it didn’t happen!

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 27, 2014 at 5:10 am | Permalink

            The music to this is hilarious to boot.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 27, 2014 at 5:33 am | Permalink

            It was on Auntie Beeb a while ago, and I think it was discussed here at least once. But the internet link here (4MB, split 3MB for business and 1MB for personal ; the latter split about 100 ways ; for business, I get around about 36kb) really struggles to YouTube. Dayshift or nightshift.
            And the link posted below brings me a warning :

            This web resource http://youtu.be/Kqy9hxhUxK0 has been identified as having content or functionality that is controlled to prevent adverse impact to REDACTED computing facilities and/or business activities (e.g. downloading large files, streaming of online video/music or unproductive sites that utilize high bandwidth)

            Yes, we do issue written warnings to excessive repeat offenders.

          • Posted May 27, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

            Here ya go:

  14. Mary
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Yes Its uvic, canada.

  15. Paul
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    The birds have learned to repeatedly approach the door until a blog post is made about them.

  16. Neil Faulkner
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    When I worked as a school cleaner, the caretaker told me of how the local Herring Gulls had learned how to activate the trip beams on the security lights so they could see the worms on the football pitch after dark.


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