Animals might not celebrate Christmas or Chanukah or Diwali or Eid, but that doesn’t mean they don’t give gifts. We are not the only species to use presents to impress and delight each other. Birds, insects, primates and other animals are all known to find and give favors for love, fun and friendship.
There seem to be two types of animal gift giving: nuptial and non-nuptial. Nuptial gifts are tokens given when wooing a mate. On the other hand, an animal might give a gift for fun, to make new friends, to build relationships or to say thanks, and these are called non-nuptial gifts. Among the animals that give non-nuptial gifts, some of the best at it are crows, bonobos and dolphins.
The case of the crows
Crows are known for their intelligence and use of tools. They’re also great at giving a gift. Gabi Mann from Seattle knows from experience — she has a whole treasure trove gifted to her from neighborhood crows.
She accidentally started feeding them when she was 4. She’d drop chicken nuggets or cracker crumbs, which the birds would scoop right up. Soon crows were watching for her, hoping for food. A couple of years later, Mann started feeding them systematically, sharing the remains of her lunch with them every day. That turned into daily feedings of peanuts in shells and other goodies.
That is when the crows began to leave gifts for Mann — a pear-colored heart, a miniature silver ball, a blue paper clip, a yellow bead, a faded Lego. They were just looking to say thanks and maybe to tempt her into leaving more food.
Just because you start leaving out food for crows (stick to bird seed, please), it doesn’t mean they will automatically start leaving trinkets at your door. But crows are known for having great memories, and they care about their crow community. They remember when people are nice — or mean — to them for years. They will even spread the news to other crows. Who knows, you might get a gift from a crow that says, “Thanks” or “We like you!”
Food is important in the animal world. Most animals don’t share food except for parents feeding their young. Bonobos buck this trend, gifting food to unrelated bonobos. Sometimes they give food just because they notice someone else doesn’t have any. They also give food just to hang out with friends. Do you do anything like that?
Dolphins are well known gift givers. They give to say “thank you” and “let’s be friends.” They might even give gifts out of pity. At some aquariums, dolphin keepers notice gifts of dead eels, tuna, squid and other seafood. One running theory is the dolphins are so worried about the keepers’ poor fishing and survival skills that they leave gifts of delicious morsels. Now the humans won’t go hungry.
Have you ever received a gift from your pet cat? Possibly a dead mouse left at your feet? It’s because of a natural instinct. Wild cats bring home dead or dying animals to teach their kittens how to hunt. Your cat is just trying to teach you life skills!
Humans aren’t the only ones to use gifts to woo someone special. Birds are especially good at leaving nuptial gifts, but other animals have been known to do it, too.
Fancy restaurants might not be in the cards, but great grey shrikes make do with a natural menu. Found throughout most of Europe and northern Africa and parts of Asia, great grey shrikes are meat-loving songbirds. Males woo their partners with presents of lizards, crickets and small animals. Yum! Even better, this gift helps the females lay strong eggs.
Humans aren’t the only animals to give pretty rocks to their partners; gentoo penguins present the perfect pebble to their loved one. Antarctic colonies are massive — sometimes with thousands of penguins. It’s tough for a penguin to stand out. To attract a partner, males will hunt down the best pebble, considering the size and smoothness of each pebble as he goes. This is so important that they might play dirty, stealing an attractive pebble from other penguins. Pebbles aren’t just for decoration. Females will use the gift to build their nests.
Who can resist pretty wrapping paper? Certainly not spiders. Several spider species give gifts to their mates, sometimes bundled up in silk-wrapped packaging. Paratrechalea ornate males, from South America, try to increase their chances of mating by presenting a delicious food morsel wrapped in spider silk. It turns out that the bigger the package — meaning the bigger the food inside — the better the chances the male was successful.
When you are opening gifts this holiday season, remember our gift-giving animal friends. You might not get to Antarctica to watch the penguins gift pebbles to their mates, but bundle up and spend some time outside. Can you find any animals bringing trinkets to one another?
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