Birds adapt to life with cars by sensing the speed limit

pigeon in road
CC BY 2.0 Danndolf

Since cars first hit the scene a little over a century ago, they've become fixtures of our daily life. For our planet's wildlife, creatures which evolved over millions of car-free years, these mechanical monsters must seem like a puzzling new arrival to their local habitats -- fast-moving threats which appear to be multiplying at an alarming rate.

But as it turns out, birds in particular might actually be adapting to our driving habits, capable of sensing how fast cars typically move on individual roads so they know just when to get out of the way.

Biologist Pierre Legagneux, lead-author on a recent study about this behavior, says the idea for this research sprung up from bird behavior most drivers witness every day: avian jaywalkers taking flight as to avoid being run over. While that survival instinct might seem pretty straightforward, Legagneux soon discovered that birds were doing more than just responding to an approaching object -- they were actually anticipating its arrival time considering the average speed of cars that pass by there.

Legagneux, who tested reaction times of birds on both fast and slow roadways, found the 21 bird types he studied "associate road sections with speed limits as a way to assess collision risk."

In other words, the birds appear to have adapted street savvy to survive alongside these strange metal-clad beasts, our cars, by judging their typical behavior. That said, the researcher concludes that "strictly enforcing speed limits could reduce bird collisions."

There are, of course, bound to be occasions where birds in the road are slow to skedaddle in the face of an oncoming car, so it's best as a motorist to keep on your toes.

Just ask George Costanza.

George Costanza versus the pigeons by joeyguse

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