These bold little birds snatch the hairs off living mammals to use in their nests

The first time Mark Hauber saw a video of a teeny tufted titmouse ripping the hairs out of a live animal’s back, he thought: “This is dangerous.”

Hauber is the lead author of a new study on “kleptotrichy,” a phenomenon in which little birds boldly pluck hairs off of living mammals —  including raccoons, dogs, humans and even cats — and weave them into their nests.

“It just reminded me of birds walking in the open mouth of crocodiles, and sort of endangering themselves by hiking on giraffes,” Hauber, a professor of evolution, ecology and behaviour at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson.

“They are definitely endangering their lives by doing it.”

Hauber first came across the phenomenon when his co-authors, Henry Pollock and Jeffrey Brawn, were doing a spring bird count in central Illinois and happened upon a tufted titmouse plucking pieces of fur from a sleeping raccoon.

Scientists already knew that mammal hair is commonly found in birds’ nests but had assumed it was collected from carcasses or shedded fur.

“This was from a live raccoon with claws and teeth. And the raccoon didn’t seem to mind because it didn’t even wake up,” Brawn said in a university press release.

When the scientists looked into it further, they discovered there was almost no scientific literature about the behaviour. But there were dozens and dozens of YouTube videos.

“There’s about nine times more mentioning of this phenomenon on YouTube than in the scientific literature. And that’s, you know, great credit to our bird watchers and nature enthusiasts all around the world,” Hauber said.

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