I’ve just seen something that was a) exciting for the birder in me to watch and that b) completely stumped the zoologist in me:

The ultimate altruistic birds.

Looking out of my office window I spotted a flock of around 35 Domestic Pigeons high up in the sky in a dense formation dashing from one side to the other. Clearly the flock was being attacked by one of the local Peregrine Falcons, which is a common occurrence but it usually happens so high up in the air that I scarcely get to notice it.

Scanning the sky carefully, I was able to spot the main flock of around 35 pigeons, a second small group of 5 birds that had broken away, and eventually the singled-out pigeon that was being pursued by the falcon (seen in the image above). So far, so good, so standard. But then something unexpected happened: the big flock had moved away, each bird in it probably happy that it wasn’t the “chosen one” of the falcon. The poor lunch-to-be, on the other hand, was frantically dashing across the sky, with the falcon only a few metres behind it in active flight, too busy watching the falcon’s movements to really have a plan or idea where it was going. And the small group of five? Now, that was the interesting part.

I would have expected this group to also get away from the falcon as quickly as possible, as the big flock had done. But, oh no: on the contrary! These five birds formed a dense cloud and actively followed the falcon-pigeon pair. I was clearly able to see that they deliberately got between the hunted pigeon and the falcon, trying to incorporate the singled-out bird into their group on no less than four occasions! This was very risky for them as each bird within the group – having already been safe from the falcon – exposed itself again and again and again to a high probability of death in case it would become the next one singled out instead of the bird that had been pursued by the falcon before.

This is clearly the most altruistic behaviour I have ever seen, and I fail to explain it. This is beyond a parent bird trying to lure a predator away from the nest, or a group of buffalos driving off a pack of lions from a calf. There was no way these pigeons would have driven off the falcon, or had a more than average chance of getting away from the predator as is the case with the parent at the nest. These five birds chose to expose themselves to a very high risk of dying – for the sake of another bird.

Have you seen anything like this before? Or do you have an explanation?

Oh, by the way: all pigeons got away, and the falcon remained hungry.

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Written by Jochen
Jochen Roeder was born in Germany and raised to be a birder. He also spent a number of years abroad, just so he could see more birds. One of his most astounding achievements is the comprehension that Yellow-crowned Night-herons do not exist, as he failed to see any despite birding in North America for more than two years. He currently lives near Heidelberg, one of the most boring places for a birder to live, a fact about which he likes to whinge a lot. When he is not birding or trying to convince his young son that patiently scanning some fields for migrants is more fun than working the jungle gym of a playground, he enjoys contemplating the reasoning behind the common names of birds. He first became famous in the bird blog world on Bell Tower Birding.