Variations in technique and speed can mean the difference between life and death


AUSTIN, TEXAS—For canaries, learning to eat seeds can be a tough nut to crack. Researchers reported last week at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology that some of these birds are up to four times faster than their peers at cracking open hard shells and accessing the tasty morsels within.

The team filmed 90 canaries at 500 frames per second (see video, above) as they ate commercial canary food or hemp seeds, which are midway in size between an apple seed and sesame seed, with a hard husk. The tough part, researchers learned, is positioning the seed in just the right place so that the beak can neatly crush it, sending the two halves of the husk flying but leaving the seed in the same place. The fastest canaries manage to maneuver the seed into position and dehusk it in 4 seconds or less, and some had about an 80% success rate. But others only got 40% of the seeds open at all, no matter how hard they seemed to be concentrating.

Quick eating is a survival skill: The longer it takes a bird to eat its fill, the longer it’s out in the open, vulnerable to predators, and the less time it has for breeding and caring for young. The most skilled birds seemed to have a better sense of where the seed was in their mouths, the researchers note. Now, they are looking to see whether that sense is learned or inherited.



Elizabeth Pennisi

Elizabeth Pennisi


Liz Pennisi is a senior correspondent covering many aspects of biology for Science.