The cute, fluffy bird world hit the science big time two years ago when Chris Templeton of University of Washington deciphered the information contained in chickadee calls. He found that the birds’ alarm calls went beyond a simple “Watch out.” They also gave a heads-up about what kind of dangerous predator was around.
This week, Templeton and former advisor Erick Greene are back in the news with reports that nuthatches listen in on those chickadee calls and decipher the information contained in them. This sort of interspecific codebreaking is a little like your dog listening in on your conversation and learning whether you are headed to the park or to the vet.
We’re willing to forgive AP reporter Randolph Schmid for misspelling the eminent Dr. Greene’s surname in the national press. Why? Because he pulled off an amazing feat of journalistic intrepidness when he sought an expert’s independent opinion on the findings. He called up Charles Eldermire at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is one of the country’s great resources about birds and science.
That in itself is good journalism. But did reporter Schmid realize that Eldermire, when he’s online, is none other than the Contemplative Nuthatch himself?? Not only that, but the kid spent his master’s degree research studying chickadees. So Schmid has found arguably the single most qualified expert to comment on breakthroughs in nuthatch-chickadee communication. His reporterly fortitude simply boggles the mind. Kudos!
And if the newspaper reports left you wanting to hear more, check out the Nuthatch’s own take on the research, complete with discussion of the fine points, links to background articles, and a sound spectrogram of the chickadee calls themselves. Nice work.