Birds exhibit complex social behaviors that can shed light on the finer points of their relationships with one another, but the question of whether birds can form friendships has intrigued scientists and bird enthusiasts alike, leading to numerous studies and field observations that reveal the depth of their connections.
It turns out that birds do like to hang out with each other, as this study on flamingoes has shown. Friendship means many things, but fundamentally it’s about spending time together outside of immediate family groups, grooming each other, playing together, helping each other out - all activities which birds engage in throughout their lives. Many species have been observed in a scientific environment carrying out these actions, thus the only conclusion one can truly reach from this behavior, if we use it as our yardstick for measuring friendship, is that birds can be chums. But it might not be entirely selfless.
RAVENS AND RECIPROCATION
Helping each other out always runs the risk of exploitation. However, just like us, birds have been seen to use strategies to ensure mutual benefit is achieved through social interaction. Being social birds, corvids are a perfect study species for these tactics. Famously monogamous as breeding pairs, we also now know that teenager ravens form groups to oust older birds from a carcass. Researchers laced pieces of meat with colored beads, and found that the same colors were regurgitated in the same roost areas. Therefore, those that ate together, slept together.
Another study found that ravens form long-lasting friendships based on mutual trust and cooperation with other ravens, lasting for years. Published in the journal Animal Behaviour, the scientists found that the ravens spent more time with specific ravens than with others, engaging in mutual preening (known as allopreening), playing, and sharing food. These smaller groups were more likely to help each other out by warning each other of incoming danger. When a certain individual flew to another part of the park, the same individuals followed with the grouping remaining constant throughout each day, every day. In short, they liked each other.
While scientists debate why birds form friendships, whether it's for food, protection, or reproduction, it's undeniable that they do.
PIGEON PALS AND GOOSE GANGS
Studies on pigeons have revealed these birds not only remember individual pigeons and actively approach them through a crowd, but also exhibit the same mutual preening behaviors and nest-sharing with these preferred companions, social bonds that can only be described as friendship. Similarly, field observations have revealed that migrating flocks of geese choose who to fly with and pair up with the same birds each year, and will honk during the flight to encourage each other, warn of danger, and take turns leading the group.
A 2019 study into vulturine guineafowl found that these large plump birds with beautiful blue plumage could get on with everybody. Over twelve months, the researchers followed the same 400 or so adults across central Kenya. Every bird had been GPS-tagged, and over a short space of time smaller social groups formed giving rise to 18 distinct gangs. As the birds moved across the landscape, sometimes up to 15 kilometers a day, the birds all moved as one large unit, but the defined groups remained the same, with no random interactions or crossovers occurring at all as they progressed. But they always stuck together as a community.
CAN WE BOND WITH BIRDS?
While scientists debate why birds form friendships, whether it's for food, protection, or reproduction, it's undeniable that they do. This also poses another question: can they be our friends? There are many stories throughout history about humans forming friendships with birds that science now backs up. And now you can make it happen in your own backyard!
If you're interested in observing some of these feathered friendships with your local birds, you can get to know them personally! A smart bird feeder shows you exactly who is stopping by in your neighborhood, so you can familiarize yourself with your avian neighbors through high-resolution photos and a video feed. The birds won’t even know you’re there as they go about their lives making friends in their natural habitat.