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Ruthless wrens help family, shun strangers in distress

A study of the social lives of superb fairy-wrens has found they show a ruthless attitude towards strangers in distress.

The research was conducted at Monash University and the Australian National University (ANU), with the findings showing the tiny birds will help members of their core social group when they are threatened but will ignore calls for help from strangers.

The study's lead author and PhD candidate at Monash University, Ettore Camerlenghi, said the wren's society was similar in structure to humans: a close family group, a wider community circle and unfamiliar birds from the wider population.

"Both species live in multilevel societies, starting with a core group of just a few closely connected individuals," he said.

The team of scientists would broadcast distress calls from a variety of fairy-wrens and test the reactions of their relatives against those of birds who were complete strangers.

Study co-author Professor Robert Magrath, from the ANU Research School of Biology, said superb fairy-wrens were "careful about who they aid".

They will risk life and limb for birds from the same breeding group, but are more careful when helping casual acquaintances.

"As for strangers, amazingly, they completely ignored the cries for help," he said.

The study results have been published in scientific journal Current Biology.

The authors say studying the patterns of cooperation within animals living in a multilevel society can benefit humans, by showing us how other animals are able to structure their social lives and manage risk.