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Yawning: Is It Contagious Among Birds, Too?

May 28, 2015 01:08 PM EDT
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Yawning is known to be contagious, and like humans and some mammals, birds apparently copy yawns, too.

At least, that's according to a new study published in the journal Animal Cognition that looked at budgies, a bird species from Australia that is often kept as a pet. Until now, this phenomenon was thought only to occur between humans, domestic dogs, chimpanzees and a type of rodent aptly called the high-yawning Sprague-Dawley rat.

"To date, this is the first experimental evidence of contagious yawning in a non-mammalian species," study leader Andrew Gallup of State University of New York said in a statement. Though, contagious yawning had previously been observed in a flock of these social birds in the wild.

During the study, Gallup's team conducted two experiments involving budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus), also known as parakeets, in a controlled lab setting. In the first, 16 birds were paired in adjacent cages with and without barriers blocking their view. If contagious, yawns should be clustered in time only when the birds can see one another. In the second experiment, the same birds were shown separate video clips of a budgie yawning and not yawning. Based on past findings, budgies are known to automatically imitate video stimuli shown to them.

Yawning was found to occur three times as often within a five-minute window when the birds could see each other compared to when their view was blocked from the other bird. Interestingly, when they were viewing video clips of another budgie yawning, yawns occurred twice as often.

The researchers believe that contagious yawning is not the result of stress or anxiety, nor an involuntary action, but rather a primitive form of showing empathy.

It has, for instance, been found that it's more common among people who are deemed to be more empathetic. Thanks to a process called emotional contagion, or state matching, contagious yawning occurs when a person thinks about or senses someone else carrying out this drowsy action.

While it may be no surprise that mammals like wolves and monkeys also suffer from contagious yawning, it now seems that, at least for budgies, life's a yawn, too.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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