Neat Freak Rattlesnakes and Other Animals That Tidy Up

From birds that remove their babies' "dirty diapers" to crows that store their tools, nature is full of orderly species.

Kids, listen up: Even rattlesnakes keep their surroundings neat and tidy. Northern Pacific rattlesnakes use their triangular heads and muscular necks to sweep aside messy grass on their hunting grounds, a new study says. 

An eastern bluebird flies away from its nest with a sac of its babies' poop in Florida. [Photograph By Barry Mansell, Npl/Minden Pictures]

No one knows for sure why they bother. But a clear path to potential prey would be a boon for the reptiles, which can’t correct their aim during an attack.

A striking rattler “has one shot. ... There’s no redoing it,” says San Diego State University graduate student Bree Putman, co-author of the new study in The Southwestern Naturalist. “Having less vegetation in the way probably helps.”

During her research, Putman observed only two male rattlers tidying their stakeout spots. But other studies show that several other rattlesnake species apparently do the same.

More experiments are needed to confirm why the snakes brush away undergrowth, Putman says. While it’s remarkable that a critter without limbs can de-clutter, plenty of other animals keep it clean.

Songbirds
These musical species haul packets of their chicks’ poop out of the nest and drop the smelly bundles elsewhere. 
Bluebirds, for example, have been seen festooning electric wires, fence posts, and utility poles with the so-called “fecal sacs.” 

Newborns’ nests are "actually quite clean,” says Mélanie Guigueno, a behavioral ecologist at Canada’s McGill University. “The birds are very, very strict about removing the fecal sacs immediately.” 
By carting away—or sometimes eating—these dirty "diapers," parents make the nest less visible to predators. 
Songbirds also get rid of uneaten food, dead nestlings, and eggshells in their nests, Guigueno says. 

Ants

A wood ant carries a dead comrade for disposal in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. [Photograph By Blickwinkel, Alamy Stock Photo]

Many ants, rather than leaving their dead to fester in the tunnels, carry the corpses out of the colony. One recent study showed that ants are more likely to die when prevented from bringing out the bodies, due to the increased likelihood of disease.

The nest of the Jerdon’s jumping ant includes a garbage chamber filled with dead ants and leftover prey, staffed by a “sewage crew” of maggots that “eat the refuse, thereby [preventing] it from clogging up the chamber,” Bert Hölldobler, a sociobiologist at Arizona State University, says via email.

Naked Mole Rats
These rodents build special toilet rooms in their grand subterranean burrows. 
When waste clogs the latrine, workers plug it with soil and dig a new one.

Mole rats can be fastidious about their tunnels, whisking away roots, pebbles, and other litter in the passageways. 
In one study, scientists planted cables and a thermometer in one burrow. The colony’s janitorial crew promptly cleared it away.

New Caledonian Crows
These avian artisans not only fashion tools, but also stow them away when they’re done with a task, according to a recent study. 

They fabricate hooked tools out of sticks and wield these probes to extract prey from inside branches.

Making a tool takes time, and birds that drop their tools seem “notably 'frustrated,'" says the study. 

Once finished with a tool, a bird might simply tuck it under one of its feet. 
But when a crow is hunting high far above the ground, where a dropped tool is probably lost forever, the bird is more likely to stash the tool in a hole, ready for another use.

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