There's a new word for birds that steal animal hair: kleptotrichy - petsitterbank

There’s a new word for birds that steal animal hair: kleptotrichy

Some small birds called titmouse take bold risks to collect a beak full of hair for their nests. They bomb cats. They land on the backs of dozing predators. They even pluck strands of hair right off people’s heads. Well, there’s a term for the unusual behavior: kleptotrichia (klep-TAH-trik-ee).

The word “kleptotrichy” comes from the Greek words for “steal” and “hair”. The behavior has only rarely been described by scientists. But dozens of YouTube videos catch birds in the act, researchers report July 27 Ecology. Tits – and one tit – were videotaped tugging at the hair of dogs, cats, humans, raccoons and even a porcupine.

“Citizen scientists, bird watchers and people with dogs knew this behavior much better than the scientists themselves,” says Mark Hauber. He is an animal behaviorist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Popular observations precede science, not the other way around, which is a valid way of doing science,” adds Hauber.

Witnessing a hair theft in the wild inspired Henry Pollock to dig deeper. Pollock is an ecologist, also at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In March 2020, Pollock and colleagues counted birds at an Illinois state park. During the count, they saw something unusual: a tufted tit plucking the fur of a sleeping raccoon. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,'” he says.

Pollock, Hauber, and their colleagues wondered if other scientists had observed similar behavior. In South America, birds called palm swifts snatch feathers from flying pigeons and parrots. This behavior is known as kleptoptily (klep-TOP-tuh-lee).

But the team only found 11 scientific descriptions of birds stealing hair from living mammals. Most reports have involved tits in North America. At least five other bird species are also taking part in the campaign. Researchers have seen an American crow harvesting hair from a cow. A red-winged starling in South Africa was observed pecking at a small antelope called the klipspringer. In Australia, three honeyeater bird species steal fur from koalas.

Scientists counting birds at an Illinois state park spotted this tufted tit plucking the fur of a dozing, undisturbed raccoon. By searching scientific journals and YouTube, the researchers found dozens more examples of birds pecking hairs from living mammals.

Meanwhile, a YouTube search by the team turned up 99 videos of birds plucking hair from mammals. Crested tits were the most common hair thieves. But a mountain tit and a black-crested tit were also caught on video stealing mammalian hair. Scientists had not previously described these two bird species as stealing hair.

Scientists generally assume that birds gather hair for their nests in a low-risk way. For example, they might pluck fur from carcasses or collect stray fluff to be flung in the wind. It was a surprise to learn that some birds take greater risks for hair. “Plucking hair from raccoons, which are common bird’s nest predators, suggests it’s obviously worth it.” [the risk] to get that hair,” says Pollock.

Hair-collecting bird species tend to live in colder climates. So these birds likely value the hair’s insulating properties to keep warm, the team says. Some birds might also dress up their nests with mammalian hair to confuse potential predators and parasites.

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