What birds’ attitudes to litter tell us about their adaptability

  • May 31, 2016
What birds’ attitudes to litter tell us about their adaptability

Alison Greggor's study investigates corvids' reaction to litter

Urban birds are less afraid of litter than their country cousins, according to a new study, which suggests they may learn that litter in cities is not dangerous.

The research could help birds to adapt to urban settings better, helping them to survive increasing human encroachment on their habitats.

The study* led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Alison Greggor and published in the journal Animal Behaviour, shows that corvids – the family of birds which includes crows, ravens and magpies – are more likely to show fear in relation to unfamiliar objects than other birds. However, if they and other bird species have previously encountered similar objects they are able to overcome some of their fear.

The researchers measured levels of fear of new objects in birds across urban and rural habitats, comparing corvids, a family known for being behaviourally flexible and innovative, with other bird species found in urban areas.  The birds' hesitancy to approach food when different types of objects were nearby was compared to their behaviour when food was presented alone.
The researchers found corvids were more afraid of objects than other birds. However, birds were less fearful if the objects involved were similar to something they may have encountered before, for instance, urban birds were less hesitant in approaching litter.

Alison Greggor [2012], who is doing a PhD in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, said: "From a broad perspective this work aims to help us understand how animals adapt to human-dominated landscapes. We found that although species differ in their overall levels of fear towards new things, populations of all species in urban areas showed lesser fear towards objects that looked like rubbish, but did not show reductions in fear towards all types of novelty. Therefore,  they may actually be learning which specific parts of urban habitats are safe and which are dangerous. In future, others might be able to use this information to predict what types of things animals need to learn to be able to survive in urban areas. Such predictions may help us understand why some species are unable to adjust to urban areas."

Watch the birds' reactions here: https://youtu.be/hHW1iAJTews

*Street smart: faster approach towards litter in urban areas by highly neophobic corvids and less fearful birds by Alison L. Greggor, Nicola S. Clayton, Antony J. C Fulford and Alex Thornton is published in Animal Behaviour. Picture credit: Corvus macrorhynchos, large-billed crow – Lumpini Park – Bangkok. Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Latest News

Scholar wins NASA Fellowship

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious NASA Fellowship to continue his studies on exoplanets. Luis Welbanks has been awarded a NASA Hubble Fellowship and will begin his programme in the autumn at Arizona State University. The Fellowship programme “enables outstanding postdoctoral scientists to pursue independent research in any area of NASA Astrophysics, using […]

Covid safety for healthcare workers in resource-poor contexts

How can healthcare workers in low- and middle-income countries protect themselves from Covid-19 contamination if resources to fund PPE are limited? A new study, led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Dylan Griswold, shows which PPE is the most protective for those working in emergency trauma surgery and how it can safely be reused. The report reviewed […]

Passages to India

Meena Venkataramanan’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard combines her passion for journalism with her interest in exploring her own identity as an Asian American. The thesis is a series of personal essays which she calls “metaphorical passages to India”. Meena’s parents are from India and Meena was born in the UK before moving to the US […]

Gates Cambridge Scholars to speak at inaugural Cambridge Festival

Several Gates Cambridge Scholars will be taking part in the inaugural Cambridge Festival which starts on Friday. The online Festival, which runs from 26th March to 4th April, brings together the Cambridge Science Festival and the Festival of Ideas to host an extensive programme of over 350 events that tackle many critical global challenges affecting us […]