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The Black-fronted Nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons), master of bluff


The Black-fronted Nunbird, master of bluff


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Black Fronted Nunbird


The Black fronted Nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons) is a six inch nondescript black bird with a red bill from the puffbird family (Bucconidae).   It is common in the floodplains and secondary forests of the Amazon, where it forages below the mid story. You find it sitting vertically in small groups, often erupting into a noisy chorus.

It’s claim to fame? It is one of the forest’s sentinels. It accompanies mixed species flocks of birds, often teaming with dozens of species of other birds to forage together. Every now and then it will produce a resonant alarm. Instantly, the rest of the flock will stop and quiet down. They will hide under leaves or branches, wary of nearby birds of prey the nunbird has spotted. Sometimes I have also seen squirrel monkeys and brown capuchins react to the call. Quite a service.

But who pays for this service? Remember there is no free lunch. So once in a while, the nunbird bills the flock. When it sights a juicy grasshopper, the nunbird will also call the alarm, even if there is no bird of prey. And with the rest of the flock looking above for the bird of prey, the nunbird easily swoops in for the kill. It lies.

The amazing story does not end there. I came across the nunbird in the most unexpected of places: Murray Gell Mann’s The Quark and theJaguar, his magnum opus on complexity theory and adaptive systems. The nunbird is cited in a chapter on how certain numbers appear in completely unrelated places across the world. Fifteen percent, for example, is the optimal amount of times a poker player bluffs. Bluff any more, and no one will believe you. Bluff any less, and you’re missing out on chances to win. It turns out fifteen percent is the exact amount of times a Black fronted nunbird calls out false alarms when confronted with juicy prey!  

See nunbirds in action at www.perunature.com.

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