May 17, 2017 I Brett Tingley

First Sighting of Wild Birds Wearing Mud as Makeup

Strange and unprecedented animal behavior has been spotted by naturalists at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain. While observing a wake of Egyptian vultures, scientists observed the birds repeatedly applying red mud to their facial feathers. The odd behavior has been described as the first known instance of wild birds applying what essentially can be called ‘makeup.’

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The birds repeatedly scratch at the muddy water then dip their heads in until a reddish color is achieved.

The birds were observed to show a clear preference for bowls of muddy water over bowls of clean water, showing that the behavior was likely intentional. According to their study published by the Ecological Society of America, the researchers speculate that this feather painting might a social or sexual function, but ultimately the purpose of the behavior remains a mystery:

One possibility is that feather painting primarily serves a function in pair-bonding and formation or is used to show off during sexual conflicts, but clearly, other potential explanations deserve equal consideration. [...] At this point, however, it is unclear what other social content, if any, may be signaled through feather painting, especially because we still know very little about Egyptian vulture group dynamics and patterns of social relationship within their society.

Naturally, the researchers want to conduct more field study to see how widespread this behavior might be and whether it might be specific to seasonal reproductive patterns. It could be that the red coloring changes how the birds interact with one another, but it is too early to tell.

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The birds did not exhibit the same behavior when presented with a trough of clear water.

One of the study’s authors, Thijs Van Overveld, told NewScientist that while some birds are thought to change the color of their plumage through careful preening, this new sighting is different in that the birds are actually applying a foreign substance to create unique looks for themselves:

It’s the first documentation of this behaviour in wild birds that are individually marked. The most interesting part of our observation is that there is great variation among individuals in the extent to which they paint feathers, ranging from almost completely white to almost completely red.

As remote cameras become smaller and more advanced, we’re beginning to see that the little critters of nature might be more like us than we think. Earlier this year, female dragon files were observed to feign death in order to avoid the sexual advances of their mates, while female lions were recently observed displaying what can only be described as fluid gender performativity, a behavior previously thought to be a product of the complexity of human social interactions. Maybe we underestimate the social complexities of our animal brethren.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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