Country Birds Lack the Smarts of City Birds

Life in the city changes cognition, behavior and physiology of birds to their advantage.

Birds living in urban environments are smarter than birds from rural environments.

But, why do city birds have the edge over their country friends? They adapted to their urban environments enabling them to exploit new resources more favorably then their rural counterparts, say a team of all-McGill University researchers.

In a first-ever study to find clear cognitive differences in birds from urbanized compared to rural areas, the researchers report key differences in problem-solving abilities such as opening drawers to access food, and temperament (bolder) among city birds versus country.

The team tested the two groups of birds using not only associative learning tasks, but innovative problem-solving tasks. Innovativeness is considered to be useful in the “real life” of animals in the wild, more so than associative learning.

“We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” says Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D student in the Department of Biology and first author of the study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Image shows a Bullfinch.
These are bullfinches in Barbados. Credit: Louis Lefebvre.

“Since urban birds were better at problem-solving, we expected that there would be a trade-off and that the immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can’t be good at everything’ (in fact, both traits are costly). It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all”.

Native birds of Barbados

The work was conducted at the McGill Bellairs facility in Barbados using bullfinches captured from various parts of the Caribbean island. “The island of Barbados shows a strong range of human settlement, there are some very developed areas but also mostly left untouched, thus providing an excellent environment to study the effects of urbanization”, adds Audet.

About this Alzheimer’s disease research

Funding: This work was supported by an Animal Behavior Society student research grant, a Society of Canadian Ornithologists student research award, and a FQRNT doctoral scholarship to J.N.A., a postdoctoral fellowship from the Fondation Fyssen to S.D., and a NSERC Discovery grant to L.L.

Source: Cynthia Lee – McGill University
Image Source: The image is credited to Louis Lefebvre.
Video Source: The video is credited to McGill University.
Original Research: Abstract for “The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization” by Jean-Nicolas Audet, Simon Ducatez and Louis Lefebvre in Behavioral Ecology. Published online November 2 2015 doi:10.1093/beheco/arv201


Abstract

The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization

Adaptation to urban habitats presumably requires changes in cognitive, behavioral, and physiological traits enabling individuals to exploit new resources. It is predicted that boldness, reduced neophobia, and enhanced problem-solving and learning skills might characterize urban birds compared with their rural conspecifics, while exposure to novel pathogens might require an enhanced immunity. To test these predictions, we assessed problem solving, color discrimination learning, boldness, neophobia, and immunocompetence in the bullfinch Loxigilla barbadensis, a highly opportunistic and innovative endemic bird in Barbados, wild-caught from a range of differently urbanized sites. Birds from urbanized areas were better at problem solving than their rural counterparts, but did not differ in color discrimination learning. They were also bolder but, surprisingly, more neophobic than rural birds. Urban birds also had an enhanced immunocompetence, measured with the phytohemagglutinin antigen. Our study sheds light on the trade-offs acting on animals exposed to changing environments, particularly in the context of urbanization.

“The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization” by Jean-Nicolas Audet, Simon Ducatez and Louis Lefebvre in Behavioral Ecology. Published online November 2 2015 doi:10.1093/beheco/arv201

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.