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Carib Grackles Imitate Conspecific and Zenaida Dove Tutors

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In Barbados, Carib grackles (Quiscalus lugubris) forage in opportunistic aggregations that include territorial Zenaida doves (Zenaida aurita) and flocks of conspecifics. In searching for and handling food, grackles use complex beak movements and modulate priority of access with a mixture of postural signals and intra- and interspecific scramble (unaggressive) competition. We show in two experiments that wild-caught grackles learn as readily from a Zenaida dove as they do from a conspecific tutor, whether tutors use similar or different food-finding techniques. Grackles also imitate the technical variant that the hetero- and conspecific tutors were shaped to demonstrate: those who observed a Zenaida dove used the dove's closed beak pecking technique, while those who observed a conspecific used the grackle's open beak pulling, probing or prying. Our findings suggest that imitation, like other forms of social learning, is strongly influenced by a species' foraging ecology. In particular, the ability to imitate novel motor skills should be favored in opportunistic species which exhibit scramble competition and which use complex searching and handling techniques to forage on embedded foods.

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Affiliations: 1: Department of Biology, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, H3A 1B1, Canada


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