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How birds prepare for war

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7 July 2010

Just as human soldiers show greater solidarity when entering combat zones, new research by a BBSRC Fellow has demonstrated that birds also increase their affiliative behaviour in situations where conflict with rival groups is likely.

Such behaviour in response to the threat of potential conflict suggests that birds may be capable of anticipation and future planning, a trait that was until recently considered the preserve of humans and other primates.

Dr Andy Radford, a BBSRC David Phillips Fellow at the University of Bristol, studied a population of green woodhoopoes (Phoeniculus purpureus), common forest-dwelling birds in southern Africa. Green woodhoopoes live in groups of up to twelve individuals, which include a dominant breeding pair and non-breeding, subordinate 'helpers' that assist in the raising of the dominants' offspring. The birds frequently preen each other to promote social cohesion within the group.

BBSRC David Phillips Fellowships are awarded to high potential, early career bioscience researchers to enable the next generation of leading UK scientists to establish themselves as independent researchers.

The new research, published today in Biology Letters, found that dominant group members increase their preening of subordinates when moving into border areas where clashes with other groups are likely.

Dominants effectively form social contracts with subordinates, providing preening in exchange for participation in any intergroup conflicts that subsequently arise. "It's a case of scratching your back if you cover mine", Dr Radford said.

When in border zones, individuals did not preen themselves more than at other times, but focused their preening on each other. "Self-directed behaviour would indicate stress, whereas the increased preening of subordinates by their superiors is likely to be a deliberate social behaviour when the threat of conflict is higher," Dr Radford explained.

It has long been suggested that conflicts between groups should influence behaviour within groups. But despite the prevalence of inter-group rivalry in many social species, almost no empirical studies have investigated this potential link in non-human animals.

These results emphasise that our understanding of co-operation, group dynamics and the evolution of sociality can be enhanced by investigating how interactions within a group are affected by interactions between groups.


Notes to editors

Dr Andy Radford is a BBSRC David Phillips Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol, and collected the data while funded by a NERC studentship.

For further information contact Dr Andy Radford, tel mobile 07812 188010 or Caroline Clancy, Press Officer, University of Bristol, tel 0117 9287777, email


'Preparing for battle? Potential intergroup conflict promotes current intragroup affiliation' by Andrew N. Radford Biology Letters


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Hannah Johnson, Public Relations office, University of Bristol

tel: 0117 9288896