Junk food fight: Science tests how birds compete for Cheetos

WASHINGTON — It's the early bird that gets the Cheetos. But it's the bigger bird that steals it away.

Behavioral ecologist Rhea Esposito used the snack food to see how two types of smart birds— smaller magpies and bigger crows — interact and compete for food.

Birds, like many of us when we're forced to admit it, apparently like Cheetos. Both birds are also naturally suspicious of new things.

And the bright orange color also solved a problem for Esposito. The traditional bait food, nuts and seeds, were hard to see for Esposito, who would watch from her car about 20 feet away. Cheetos — or sometimes their cheaper and yellower generic equivalent — worked well.

She even made it tough for them later by making them pull on a string to get the tasty snack out of a hollow log, illustrating their use of a tool.

Esposito presented her results this week at the Ecological Society of America convention in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it was called the Cheetos Challenge. She works at the Cary Institute in New York and did her research in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

The magpies turned out to be quicker and more daring. The magpies first explored and tasted the strange junk food, while crows repeatedly approached and retreated. But when the crows learned that Cheetos were tasty, they stole them from the magpies.

Crows were three times more likely to steal Cheetos than magpies.

So while it is fair to say that the early bird gets the Cheetos, Esposito concluded, "they don't get to keep it."

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Follow Seth Borenstein at http://twitter.com/borenbears and his work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/seth-borenstein

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