Why Scientists Use Cheetos To Study Birds

If you want to attract birds to your garden, one of the most common things you can do is to serve them food that will keep them coming back for more. You can raid your own kitchen for some tasty treats, such as pumpkin seeds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, cracked corn, or even fruits like apples, plums, and berries. But have you ever thought about offering them junk food?

At the Ecological Society of America convention held in 2016, Rhea Esposito, a behavioral ecologist for the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, revealed that she used Cheetos to lure birds in a study she was conducting, as reported by the Associated Press. The convention attendees dubbed the study the "Cheetos Challenge." Esposito's goal was to observe how birds from the corvid family — specifically magpies and crows — behave in regard to competing for food. Birds from the corvid family are known to be intelligent, and the results of the study are interesting.

Why were Cheetos used?

Rhea Esposito carried out the study during the birds' nesting season. According to her, smaller birds tend to nest near larger birds in order to have more protection against predators (via Ecological Society of America). With a shared nesting area, however, how do the birds behave when it comes to their food sources?

The study was done on wild magpies and crows in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Esposito thought of using Cheetos instead of the usual nuts as bait, as it was easier to see while she was observing the birds from a distance. Surprisingly, the birds loved the snack. "Cheetos are not the healthiest food, but the birds like them a lot. And because they are bright orange, it was really easy to observe when the birds completed the task," she stated. Esposito prepared various challenges for the birds and positioned herself in her vehicle located 20 feet away. She placed Cheetos out in the open and inside logs and waited for the birds to eat them, according to the Associated Press.

The results of the study

In her research, Rhea Esposito found out that magpies and crows have different approaches when it comes to getting their food. The magpies descended on the Cheetos first, while the crows took a moment to observe and were warier to touch the orange treat, as reported by Mental Floss. Despite their initial hesitance, however, the crows took a liking to the junk food once they discovered that it was food. Esposito also concluded that crows were three times more likely to get the food.

Next, Esposito placed the Cheetos right in the middle of two nests that belonged to the crows and magpies. Both types of birds descended on the Cheetos at about the same speed and time, but the crows let the magpies have at it. However, once the crows noticed that the pile was food, they shooed the magpies away and stole the Cheetos (via Ecological Society of America). The experiment was done several times, and each had the same result. Eventually, the magpies gave up attempting to get the Cheetos. Overall, the study showed that magpies gained more protection by nesting near crows, which are larger birds, but it came at the cost of their food supply.