Photo/IllutrationA great tit (Provided by Kyoto University's Toshitaka Suzuki)

Great tits can imagine snakes and take appropriate defensive action when hearing specific alarm chirps from their peers, according to a Kyoto University scientist.

Toshitaka Suzuki said the chirping of the birds produces a visual image of the slithering natural enemy in the mind of their fellows.

“It is the first time to confirm through an experiment that animals other than humans can imagine something by hearing certain sounds,” said Suzuki, who researches animal behavior.

Great tits make “ja-ja” sounds when they have identified snakes to warn other birds of the foe's proximity. Tits hearing the alarm calls then try to locate the predators and exhibit threatening behavior to drive them away to protect chicks and eggs in their nests.

The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Suzuki repeated experiments in which the specific chirping was played through speakers to examine how great tits responded to the sound.

The results showed most birds hearing the sound likely mistook a 20-centimeter wooden stick that was moved by a rope on the tree trunk and elsewhere for a wriggling snake and approached it.

When the tits heard sounds made to identify cats or crows, almost no great tits went near the manipulated stick.

The findings indicate the "ja-ja" sound evokes a mental image of snakes in great tits and has them react to the wooden rod moving like a snake.

The phenomenon has been confirmed in humans. For example, if one hears the word “apple,” the hearer would have an image of an apple in mind even when there is no apple in view.

“Many animals other than humans could have such an advanced cognitive ability,” said Suzuki.

Other wild birds and monkeys are known to make special calls when finding the predators or food, and closer examination could reveal those animals also have a similar imaging ability, according to Suzuki.