Canaries are the cheetahs among seed eaters

2 min
Text Maja Mielke
Image Alfred Grupstra en Thijs de Lange

Researchers at UAntwerp have been trying to investigate canaries when they are feeding. The only problem? The scientists are too slow – or the birds are too quick, depending on your point of view. The scientist would place a seed on the feeder and run towards the safety shield of the X-ray room – only to discover the seed has already been eaten when they arrive.


Small songbirds are underestimated. They're true experts at cracking seeds; some eat up to 50% of their body weight in seeds every day. The size and shape of the beak determine which seeds a bird can crack. But that's not the full story. A great beak doesn't help if you can't move it effectively. ‘Because beak movements are incredibly fast and difficult to observe, we don't really know how songbirds use their beaks while cracking and husking seeds’, says Maja Mielke, PhD researcher in Functional Morphology (Faculty of Science). ‘That's why I study beak movement in feeding canaries using high-speed X-ray recordings, something that has never been done before.’

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Although the skills of the canaries often drove me to despair during the recording sessions, their seed cracking efficiency is truly impressive!

Maja Mielke

After collecting and analysing numerous X-ray videos, the UAntwerp researchers discovered three key features that make canaries such efficient seed processors. First: agility. ‘Unlike humans, they can move both their upper and lower jaws up and down. And the lower jaw also moves sidewards’, Mielke explains. Second: speed. The birds reach up to 25 chewing cycles per second. For comparison: most humans chew less than three times per second. Third: the tongue. Canaries use it to position and stabilise the seed during cracking and husk removal. ‘These features allow canaries to process a seed within seconds, without dropping or crushing it’, says Mielke. ‘Although their skills often drove me to despair during the recording sessions, their seed cracking efficiency is truly impressive!’


Survival of the fastest


Why are such feeding skills essential? ‘First, the bird needs to finish its meal quickly, before a predator gets it’, Mielke explains. ‘Second, if the bird is in a flock, it wants to snap up the best bits before the others. And third, with the climate changing, severe droughts are becoming more common. During such droughts, hard but durable and nutritious seeds are often the only remaining food source.’ This is why being the cheetah among seed eaters can be essential for the survival of songbirds in the wild, both for individuals and for species.

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