Birds turn copycats – but only in certain seasons

  • June 9, 2016
Birds turn copycats – but only in certain seasons

Study suggests birds copy their peers to try new foods, but only in risky circumstances at certain times of year.

This is the first time such biases have been found in the wild, and suggests that social influences would likely shape how jackdaws exploit man-made foods year round.

Alison Greggor

Birds will try new foods by copying their peers, but will only do so in dangerous places at certain times of year, according to a new study which will be useful as humans continue to encroach on their natural habitats.

The study, Contagious risk taking: social information and context influence wild jackdaws’ responses to novelty and risk, is published in Scientific Risks.

Alison Greggor [2012], lead author on the paper and a Gates Cambridge Scholar doing a PhD in Experimental Psychology, says: "Wild animals increasingly encounter man-made food and objects. We intuitively expect animals to approach certain combinations of food and objects, such as crisps in a shiny packet on the pavement, but we equally expect them to avoid other combinations, like reflective crop deterrents in a field. How they react to these different types of novelty is crucial to their survival, but we know little about how animals learn to discriminate beneficial from dangerous novelty in the wild."

The researchers, who included Professor Nicola Clayton at the University of Cambridge, Guillam E. McIvor, an  Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, and Dr Alex Thornton from the University of Exeter, wanted to investigate how social learning might allow animals to capitalise on the risk-taking of others. They studied the actions of jackdaws. Like other birds in the crow family, jackdaws often rely on human-produced food, but are also persecuted because of their perceived conflict with humans. The researchers though social learning might be particularly important in allowing them to survive alongside humans. 

They tested how often wild, individually marked jackdaws were influenced by social cues to consume novel, palatable foods and to approach a startling object across both non-breeding and breeding seasons. They found that in both seasons jackdaws were more likely to consume novel foods after seeing another jackdaw do so. In contrast, jackdaws only copied others in eating near the object during breeding season. The evidence suggested that, despite the potential value of social information, jackdaws did not follow social cues consistently. Instead, whether risk-taking was contagious depended on the type of information and the time of year. 

Alison comments: "This is the first time such biases have been found in the wild, and suggests that social influences would likely shape how jackdaws exploit man-made foods year round. Meanwhile they may be more likely to learn socially about man-made objects at certain times of year."  

Latest News

Bridging the public health data gap

When Anwesha Lahiri  [2021] was doing her master’s fieldwork in India, she visited a tribal village in a remote area on top of a mountain between two districts. Only around 500 people lived there and there was no proper road leading to the village. At the heart of the problem was the dangerous ascent needed […]

Tracing the origins of our political beliefs

What makes some people more vulnerable to extremism than others? How do we build cognitive resilience against extreme ideologies? And how does the brain react to misinformation on social media? These are some of the key political questions that political neuroscientist Leor Zmigrod [2016] is exploring, putting the science into our understanding of radicalisation.   Leor […]

A leading woman in STEAM

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been selected as one of the 75 leading women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics in India. Yama Dixit will feature in the second edition of the book She Is, published by the Red Dot Foundation in partnership with the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India to mark 75 […]

Tackling the obesity epidemic in Africa

When she left school, Paula-Peace James-Okoro [2022] intended to become a medical doctor, but after starting a degree in Biochemistry she discovered a passion for the subject and for using it to address one of the major health challenges facing Africa – obesity. She says: “In Africa, the rates of metabolic diseases, like obesity and […]