20 september 2011

Friends help wild birds innovate


You need the latest Flash installed and Javascript enabled to view media on this page. Please ensure Javascript has been enabled in your browser settings. You can download Flash with the link below.

Get Flash Player now

Larger groups of great and blue tits are better at solving problems than smaller ones, Oxford University scientists have found.

The researchers believe that this is probably because the larger the group, the more chance there is of it including a ‘bright’ or ‘experienced’ bird that can solve a particular new problem: in this case operating lever-pulling devices to receive a food reward.

The study took place on wild populations of great tits (Parus major) and blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), which naturally flock together, in Oxford’s Wytham Woods. A report of the research appears this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘Previous research has suggested that this effect, sometimes called the ‘pool of competence’ occurs in humans, but this is the first direct evidence that a similar effect occurs in non-human animals,’ said Dr Julie Morand-Ferron of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology who did the work with colleague Dr John Quinn. 

‘Surprisingly we found that there does not seem to be an optimal size of flock after which the benefits of birds ‘putting their heads together’ tails off,’ said Dr Morand-Ferron. ‘Instead, for these social songbirds, 30 heads are almost always better than 20, and 20 better than 10, when it comes to solving problems.’

great tit problem solving
The birds had to operate a lever-pulling device to get a food reward

In the experiments the researchers found that as the size of the groups increased individual birds got more food in return for the time they spent puzzling how to work food-dispensing devices: showing that larger groups were able to solve a puzzle more efficiently. They also found, by comparing behaviour around devices at ‘exposed’ locations and those with nearby cover, that this efficiency may be boosted because larger groups have more eyes to watch out for predators whilst individuals complete a task.

‘Great tits are amazing innovators and are always trying something new – they have even been found to prey on bats!’ said Dr Morand-Ferron. ‘It may be that in species that are always looking to move into new areas, and so confront new problems, there are many benefits to being in a gang with individuals with different skills and personalities. This is especially true in the case of social birds, such as great tits and blue tits, which follow and learn from each other.’