The life and times of birds are not so very different from daily events in the human world. Eat and sleep, the daily grind of providing for the family, ill health and good fortune; ultimately it’s a struggle for survival on whatever level.
Birds and humans live parallel lives, an existence controlled not only by the clock, the 12-hour division of day and night, but the division of the year into seasons.
And ultimately we all share the adventure of a journey through life, and an awareness of the dangers that can end it.
It might appear foolhardy to view birds or indeed any form of wildlife in anthropocentric terms, and scientists frown upon it, but every so often a little bit of scientific research surfaces that confirms my view that the lives of birds and animals are not so very different from our own.
The research in question comes from Deakin University ecologist Mylene Mariette who has found that female Australian zebra finches are acutely aware of how much time the males spend away from home. But the females will let their mates off for a long absence, as long as an acceptable explanation is given. Remarkably, if no explanation is provided, the female exacts revenge by taking just as long away from the nest when it’s her turn to escape the offspring.
This might sound like a silly season journalism story, or even one for April Fool’s Day on April 1, but Dr Mariette has the evidence to prove it by way of recording “conversations” between male and female zebra finches.
She says the female was more likely to believe her partner’s explanation if he uttered more than 40 “tweets”, and delivered them at speed.
“It really is an accelerated discussion,” she says. “Whenever the male was late, they spoke a lot faster when he came back to the nest.”
Her research, published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, is the first study to look at how birds negotiate co-parenting and resolve conflict.
Her team filmed the movements of 12 zebra finch pairs during egg incubation. When the male left the researchers detained him for an hour – about double time he would usually be away from the nest foraging for food for the female and their young.
Conversations were recorded and Dr Mariette said that even to the untrained ear it was clear there was a difference between the chatter when the male returned from 30 minutes away to when he had been away for an hour.
The secret, she determined, to resolving potential marital conflict was talking. And such communication was vital for the species’ survival.
We don’t get zebra finches in Tasmania but I have spent many hours in Queensland studying this species. It is also a popular cage bird, the zebra name coming from its tail stripes.
I’m now looking at Tasmania’s only native finch, the beautiful fire-tail, to establish if the females are asking “and what time do you call this?” when the male makes a late return.