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Bluff The Listener

BILL KURTIS: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!, the NPR News quiz . I'm Bill Kurtis, filling in for Carl Kasell. We're playing his week with Roxanne Roberts, Tom Bodett, and P.J. O'Rourke. And here again is your host, at the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago, Peter Sagal.


Thank you, Bill.



SAGAL: Thank you so much. Right now, it's time for the WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! Bluff the Listener game. Call 1-888-Wait-Wait to play our game on air. Hi, you're on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

BREE KESSLER: Hi, Peter, this is Bree Kessler from Anchorage, Alaska.

SAGAL: Oh, Anchorage, it's just a great time of the year in Anchorage, isn't it?

KESSLER: Yeah, there is over 19 hours of daylight.

SAGAL: Oh, that's awesome.

KESSLER: So it's pretty great if you don't mind feeling manic.


SAGAL: Yeah, I remember we went to Alaska I guess it was the summer before last, and we never went to sleep because the sun never went down.

KESSLER: Yeah, it's impossible.

SAGAL: And in the first few days, you're like enjoying yourself immensely because you're doing so much stuff, and then you realize on the end of the third day you're going insane.

P.J. O'ROURKE: Right. That's why the bars never close up there, right, Bree?

KESSLER: Yeah, you just need Tylenol PM and some alcohol, and it's totally fine.


TOM BODETT: You're making me homesick.



SAGAL: Well, welcome to the show, Bree. You're going to play our game in which you have to tell truth from fiction. Bill, what is Bree's topic?

KURTIS: Smarter than the average bear.

SAGAL: We're always finding out that animals are smarter than we thought, but sometimes that news is a little more alarming than other times. This week we read a study from the world of biology that's uncovered something a little scary about the animal kingdom. Guess the real story, you'll win Carl's voice on your home answering machine or voicemail. Ready to play?

KESSLER: I'm ready.

SAGAL: All right, let's hear first from Tom Bodett.

BODETT: If a prairie dog thinks those pants make your butt look big, they'll shout it out. Unlike married people and CNN, prairie dogs make and share accurate and detailed observations about all manner of things, including us.


BODETT: Dr. Con Slobodchikoff spent 25 years studying the sophisticated vocalizations of these charming but unfiltered rodents and found their chirping alerts contained word-like packages of information to share with the rest of the colony. Unique sounds were found to both identify specific threats, such as hawks and coyotes, but to also point out details of their appearance. And they do the same thing when talking about humans.


BODETT: For example, said Dr. Slobodchikoff, a human alarm call will not only identify the intruder as being human but also contain information about the size, shape, and color of the clothes. So next time don't be fooled by that cute little chirping face at you from the prairie grass. He might be saying: Here comes bear butt in those hilarious yellow pants.


SAGAL: So prairie dogs are talking to each other, and worse, they're talking about us. Your next story of animals with advanced degrees comes from Roxanne Roberts.

ROXANNE ROBERTS: City dwellers dread the occasional pigeon bombing, and sometimes it seems as if they're actually aiming at you. It turns out they are.


ROBERTS: Pigeons have learned that pooping on people gives them a feather up in the urban jungle. Like coloration and nesting habitat, airborne droppings are an evolutionary adaptation, according to a new study by NYU ornithologist Jason Vest(ph). Over the past 10 years, Vest tracked a shift from stationary objects - statues, windowsills - to any human within a 60-foot radius, both sitting or moving.


ROBERTS: Quote, "If you set aside the gross factor, it's actually very impressive. I've seen pigeons fly over and nail a pedestrian from 20 feet high."


ROBERTS: Of course Vest concedes that some birds are more aggressive than others. One of his marked research specimens, S476, nicknamed Sniper...


ROBERTS: ...was especially adept at targeting passersby. Quote, "I swear that pigeon could spot a bald guy from 100 feet away."


ROBERTS: "He was kind of a badass."


SAGAL: Pigeons aren't doing it accidentally; they're aiming at us. Your last story of a cute, cuddly genius comes from P.J. O'Rourke.

O'ROURKE: A student studying animal cognition at the University of Michigan used a lot of hamsters for experiments. Hamsters, as all of you know, if you have a kid with a hamster in his bedroom, spend all night running in their hamster wheels, at least we think that's what they're doing because who's going to stay up all night watching hamsters? Well, University of Michigan students.


O'ROURKE: In a series of nocturnal observations using night-vision glasses and one-way mirrors, the students left the labs' cage doors open at night, and as soon as the labs' lights were turned off and the students were behind the one-way mirror, the hamsters got out of their cages, formed small groups, began patrolling the lab, investigating door frames and window ledges and inspecting computer screens and keyboards and pooping on lab notes.


O'ROURKE: And then they went back in their cages and ran some more. I'm afraid there's really only one conclusion we can draw from this data: Hamsters are training for a mission. And we don't know what that mission is.


O'ROURKE: And we don't know which side the hamsters are on.


O'ROURKE: So when you're giving a kid a goodnight kiss in his bedroom with a hamster in it, make sure the hamster cage is latched tight, and make sure your kid is armed.


SAGAL: So here are your choices about strange new evidence of animal intelligence: from Tom Bodett, the discovery that prairie dogs don't just communicate, but they talk about us behind our backs; from Roxanne Roberts, the discovery that the pigeons who poop on us are actually trying to do just that; or from P.J. O'Rourke, the discovery that the hamsters when they're running the wheels are actually in training for something.


SAGAL: So which of these is the true story of a discovery in animal intelligence?

KESSLER: Oy, I don't know.

SAGAL: Oy, do they say that in Alaska?

KESSLER: They do.

SAGAL: Is that some sort of Alaskan expression?

KESSLER: If you move there from Brooklyn.


SAGAL: I guess so.


KESSLER: But I think I have to go with Roxanne's story.

SAGAL: You're going to go with Roxanne's story that the pigeons are aiming at people to mark their food supply?

KESSLER: I think so; it's got to be it.

SAGAL: All right, well to bring you the correct answer, we actually spoke to the scientist who made this discovery.

CON SLOBODCHIKOFF: Prairie dogs describe the physical features of individual predators. They might be making fashion statements as we speak.

SAGAL: That was Dr. Con Slobodchikoff.



SAGAL: The researcher who interpreted the prairie dog language to figure out that they're talking about all kinds of things, including how we look. I'm sorry, but evidently Tom had the real answer, so you didn't win our game, but you earned a point for Roxanne with a very convincing, nay brilliant, suggestion that the pigeons are basically bombardiers.


SAGAL: Bree, thank you so much for playing.

KESSLER: Thank you.

SAGAL: Have a great summer in Alaska.

KESSLER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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