Clever birds don't have it all
Studies show some great tits are remarkably clever when it comes to solving problems to get at food. But does this help them in the wild?
BE CAREFUL who you call a bird brain, you may be paying them a compliment. Some bird species exhibit remarkable intelligence, among them the great tit, which is a common garden bird.
The New Caledonian crow is top of the leader board with its capacity to fashion tools to retrieve food, but the local great tit doesn’t do too badly when it comes to solving problems. Dr John Quinn, a specialist in animal personality and cognition, began to study the bird four years ago while at Oxford University. He and his team caught wild great tits in a nearby wood and set the birds a simple problem. If they solved it, they would get at some food.
Now a lecturer in ecology at University College Cork, Quinn had a particular purpose in mind when conducting the experiments. “We are trying to understand why we get individual variations in the birds’ cognitive ability,” he says.
They were also trying to discover whether it is “better to be brighter” – whether the birds that were able to solve the puzzle also did better generally, either reproductively or in terms of survival. “The purpose of our study was simple: to test if it was better being a problem-solver. That hadn’t been tested in the past. Do they do better or do all individuals do equally well in the end?
“It has been known for many years that relatively clever species tend to be adapted to living in more challenging environments than their less intelligent counterparts,” he said.
Another aspect of general genetic “fitness” is the number of eggs that appear in a nest. More eggs can mean more fledglings.
Quinn conducted the research while at Oxford, but moved to UCC’s school of biological, earth and environmental sciences in January. He submitted the research and it was published recently in the journal Current Biology.
The research team – including Ella Cole, who remained at Oxford, and Julie Morand-Ferron, now at the University of Ottawa – collected great tits in Wytham Wood near the college, ultimately testing 700.
The great tit is a highly successful bird. “We know they are very innovative in the wild,” he says. These are the birds that pioneered the practice of raiding home milk deliveries, pecking open foil milk-bottle caps to steal cream. “They are quite an adaptive species.”
The birds were held for one day. Each one was placed in a cage to see if it could solve a puzzle. The incentive was to acquire a juicy wax moth larva, which had been placed in a clear plastic tube and was readily visible to the bird. The prize was supported by a small platform held in place by a stick of wood. Removal of the stick caused the platform to fall to the base of the tube where the bird could get at it – and with it the larva.