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Rüppell’s vultures
Gyps rueppellii

The Rüppell’s vulture is the second largest African Gyps species and one of the least studied African vultures (Bildstein, 2022). They have a range of more than 14 million km2 in sub-Saharan Africa and may be beginning to colonise the Western Palearctic (Muñoz et al., 2023). Nonetheless, less than 22.000 individuals remain, and the population continues to decline, classifying them as critically endangered (BirdLife International, 2021).

Rüppell’s vultures are highly social and monogamous (van Overveld et al., 2020). They nest in colonies of up to hundreds of breeding pairs, often on cliffs but sometimes also in trees. As obligate scavenger, Rüppell’s vultures feed on carcasses of migratory ungulates, which they locate though areal information networks. They frequently forage in loose groups of up to 50 individuals. 

We will be studying two captive breeding groups of Rüppell’s vultures at Rotterdam Zoo and Avifauna Bird Zoo. We are primarily doing observational work of their social behaviour to gain a better understanding of their social networks. Furthermore, we hope to use voluntary behavioural experiments to investigate cooperative abilities and prosocial tendencies.

Blijdorp Dec 2023 Ruppells vulture.jpeg

Azure-winged Magpies 
Cyanopica cyanus

The azure-winged magpie is a relatively small corvid species native to Eastern Asia (China, Mongolia, Russia, Korea and Japan). Whereas its shape is similar to that of the Eurasian magpie, albeit much smaller, the two species are not really closely related. In contrast, azure-winged magpies are closely related to Iberian magpies, and only until recently the two species were thought to be one.


Cooperative breeder

Azure-winged magpies live in colonies of up to 70 individuals that are comprised of multiple family groups. These family groups contain next to the breeding pair often related and unrelated conspecifics that all help in raising the offspring. This cooperative breeding style makes the azure-winged magpie an interesting model species to test predictions of the Cooperative Breeding Hypothesis (Burkart et al. 2009), especially when comparing them with other, non-cooperatively breeding corvid species such as ravens. The first results from the AWM-lab do seem to confirm at least some of these hypotheses as we could show pro-active prosociality among the azure-winged magpies, which was a first for bird species (Horn et al. 2016).


Research at the AWM-lab of the CogBio Department

In September 2014 I set up my own independent Azure-Winged Magpie (AWM) lab at the department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna. Since then we have had breeding success every year, and by now we have two social groups, each with 6 individuals. Several of our birds are hand-raised, which allows hands on working with them, and we’re planning to expand that number as the lab grows.


Whereas the research at the AWM-lab mainly focuses on experimental tests regarding cooperation and pro-sociality, we’re also doing observational work studying their basic socio-ecology and are open for projects regarding their extra-ordinary vocal repertoire.

Common Ravens

Corvus corax

Common ravens represent the biggest species of the corvid family. Moreover they have relatively large brains with very high neuron counts (Olkowicz et al. 2016). In previous work, I showed that ravens also have sophisticated social cognition (Massen et al. 2014a,b; see also Bugnyar 2013), that they can cooperate (in dyads) in experimental set-ups (Massen et al. 2015), and how they choose partners to cooperate with (Asakawa-Haas et al. 2016). Although ravens form life-long monogamous pair-bonds which defend territories (Heinrich 1989), these territories are scarce and (sub)adult ravens can live up until they are 10 years of age in large non-breeding flocks that are characterized by high degrees of fission-fusion dynamics (Braun & Bugnyar 2012; Loretto et al. 2016).

I study several groups and dyads of ravens at the Haidlhof Research Station and at the Konrad Lorenz Research Center. Current projects study cooperation, prosociality and mirror-self-recognition in ravens.

Carrion & Hooded Crows  

Corvus corone & corvix

Carrion crows live in large non-breeding flocks characterized by high degrees of fission-fusion dynamics (Goodwin 1967). Generally, just like ravens, they also breed in monogamous pairs (Richner 1990), though there is some variation among populations and in some populations they breed cooperatively (Richner 1990; Baglione et al. 2003). Furthermore, this is not just a peculiarity of the birds within this population, since cross-fostering experiments showed that given the ‘right’ ecological conditions all carrion crows can breed cooperatively (Baglione et al. 2002) and thus they can be considered ‘facultative’ cooperative breeders. 

I study several groups and dyads of crows at the Haidlhof Research Station and at the Konrad Lorenz Research Center. Current projects study cooperation, prosociality and mirror-self-recognition in crows.

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