Like Other Animals, Sparrows Use Medicinal Plants Too

by Madonna Watts D'Souza

Like Other Animals, Sparrows Use Medicinal Plants Too

December 30, 2020

Scientists have amassed increasing evidence of animals using plants for their medicinal properties, and now sparrows have joined the club.

Science has always praised individual plants for their potent medicinal properties, thanks to their secondary metabolites.
Plants like ginger, turmeric, Basil, Evening primrose, etc., have been used for medicinal properties for many years. Historically there are several documentations of humans using plants as medicines. From opium for acting as sedatives to the controversial weed for as stress reliever, many perceive that it is only us who may know about them.

But we aren’t the only ones who may know about them. If you think humans have discovered plants’ medicinal properties, then my friends, you are undoubtedly wrong. The tiny, petite sparrows have been using plants as preventive medicines, and we have just caught them in the act.

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Inside the nest box of a blue tit. Photo © NottsExMiner

Intelligence of the Tiny Sparrow

A study recently revealed that Russet Sparrows (Passer Cinnamomeus) in China have been using Wormwood (Artemisia Verlotorum) leaves in their nest to prevent parasite infestations and help protect their offsprings. A tiny brain can do this? Even the researchers didn’t believe it until they tested it out themselves.

“In China, russet sparrows use wormwood leaves for building their nests around the same time that local people put up wormwood on their doors as a traditional custom during the Dragon Boat Festival,” the authors of the paper wrote. Hainan Normal University ecologist Canchao Yang led the study.

The authors of the study additionally added, “The belief that this behavior infers protection from ill health is based on the description of anti-parasitic compounds in wormwood. It has been outlined that the incorporation of fresh wormwood leaves into nests may serve a similar function for sparrows.”

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In an effort to self-medicate, a bonobo female selects stem of a M. fulvum plant for stripping. Image courtesy of LuiKotale Bonobo Project, copyright Max Koelbl.

The Experiment and The Sparrow

Researchers set up 48 pairs of nest boxes, with one couple having 5 grams of wormwood with the other with 5 grams of bamboo. Once the sparrows entered, researchers daily added more wormwood or bamboo or nothing and measured the amount of wormwood the sparrows brought back to the nest.

The behavioral analysis revealed that the sparrows chose nest locations closer to the wormwood leaves and kept restocking fresh leaves by smelling and locating them. Now you would think, okay, what’s so special about this? Well, the results revealed how intelligent these tiny aviators are.

William Feeney, an Ecologist from Griffith University in Australia, said, “Using a series of behavioural experiments, we portray that birds actively mark their nest locations close to the vicinity of wormwood and resupply established nests with fresh wormwood leaves gathered based solely on the leaves smell.”

He added, “The nests with wormwood leaves had lower parasite accumulation. By lessening the number of parasites such as mites, the sparrows that add more wormwood leaves to their nest produce bulkier and healthier chicks.”

The nests with Wormwood leaves had a lesser number of parasites like mites in them. It was also delineated that nests with more Wormwood leaves had given birth to heavier and healthier chicks. Researchers yet don’t know if the sparrows knew about its medicinal properties.

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Orangutans have been caught using a pain-relieving ointment the same manner as indigenous tribes in Indonesia use as ethnomedicine

Results are Astonishing

Feeney said, “Our outcomes show that russet sparrows, like humans, use wormwood as a preemptive herbal medicine to save their offspring against ill health.” The study has been published in the Current Biology journal.

Not only Russet sparrows but even other birds and animals have been exploiting plants as medicinal values. Maybe the sparrows have a knack for fragrances and wanted a lovely-fragrant home, or they are smarter than we think. But they aren’t the only ones.

Starlings are the other type of birds that use plants like Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), goutweed (Aegopodium Podagaria), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), the elder (Sambucus Niger), cow parsley (Anthriscus Sylvestris), and white willow (Salix Alba). They emit fragrances that may boost their chick’s immune system and keep the parasites away.

Plants- Providers For All

Other animals that use plants as medicines are chimpanzees, which eat leaves from Aspilia plants. It is believed that these rough leaves clean the parasitic worms from their gut walls, which are then expelled in the form of faeces.

Elephants in Kenya eat leaves from the borage family to initiate labour. In Indonesia, orangutans have been caught applying a lathery mixture of Dracaena Cantleyi leaves and saliva on their body to relieve joint and muscle pain. But what is noteworthy is that the indigenous tribes in Indonesia have been applying this mixture in the same manner.

So the question is whether animals copied this behaviour from humans or did humans reproduce this behavior from animals?

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