What Kind Of Bird Are You? A Peek Inside The Avian Mind

 @rpalmerscience
on May 26 2012 12:23 PM

What Kind Of Bird Are You? A Peek Inside The Avian Mind

Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a form so resplendent, should harbor so much mischief; -- that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!

Although that passage might sound like a rant about the evils of a person penned by a recently jilted lover, it's not. It's actually famous artist and naturalist John James Audubon sounding off on blue jays, of which he had a rather low opinion, to say the least.

In describing one of his paintings, Audubon invites the reader to observe three blue jays each enjoying the fruits of knavery, sucking the egg which he has pilfered from the nest of some innocent Dove or harmless Partridge!

Audubon's writings are peppered with such emotional anthropomorphizations, but he's hardly the first to assign broad personality traits to birds.

Doves are demure, owls are wise, and lovebirds are faithful, right? It's not quite as simple as that (though lovebirds do mate for life). While personality is tricky to define scientifically, there is a burgeoning body of research that examines how bird behavior can vary among and within species, and which suggests that our mythology could do with a bit of revising.

Clever Corvids Know Their Way Around A Toolbox

The Greeks may have had it wrong when they assigned an owl to sit on wise old Athena's shoulder.

Most research shows it is birds belonging to the Corvidae family -- a group that includes crows, ravens, rooks, and, yes, even Audubon's hated jays -- that have an uncanny ability to learn, play, and use tools unmatched by any other feathered relative.

In the wild, New Caledonian crows will readily use sticks or leaves as poking tools to grab a grub from the holes in a tree. In the lab, they can do even more: A 2007 study conducted by University of Auckland scientists showed that crows quickly learned how to use short sticks to obtain longer sticks from a toolbox. The longer sticks were then used to extract the food.

The New Zealand researchers performed another set of similar experiments, the results of which were published in 2010 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They not only confirmed their findings, but also said that because the crows kept on using the short stick despite the fact that it wouldn't get food on its own confirmed that it wasn't a simple association of reward driving the crows' use of the tools.

Tool use in corvids isn't limited to sticks. Crows in Japan and elsewhere have figured out a way to use cars as nutcrackers by dropping nuts on the road to be crushed by the vehicles.

Other research bolsters the brainy reputation of corvids: Rooks, closely related to crows, appear to understand basic principles of physics, according to another Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper.

When shown pictures of eggs in impossible situations -- such as hovering in the air -- rooks looked at those photographs 50 percent longer than at photos showing eggs in more conventional poses -- such as resting on a table. That behavior mirrors the reactions of 6-month-old human babies, University of Cambridge scientists said in 2009.

Once Birds Fly The Nest, They Don't Come Back

If your friends move to the big city, you may find it hard to pry them away from their metropolitan lifestyle. The same goes with upwardly mobile blackbirds.

A study published in the journal Oikos last November found that once European blackbirds emigrated from forest to city, they were reluctant to migrate further in the winter, preferring instead to stick around.

The researchers speculated that this increased sedentary behavior of urban birds could promote further ecological divergence between rural and urban populations. Since they are not spending as much time on the wing, urban blackbirds could start breeding earlier, which would isolate them from their less cosmopolitan relatives over time, the scientists said.

Suburban life also has an effect on birds. A 2003 study published in the Condor, the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society, found that suburban scrub-jays were much more efficient foragers than their rural counterparts, and they also tended to breed earlier than their country cousins.

Geographic differences in street smarts are also counterintuitive to what one might expect based on human stereotypes. Anne Clark, a Binghamton University biologist, has been examining avian savvy through a 20-year study of crows that live in and around Ithaca, N.Y.

Clark and her research team examine the fine-grained differences in the personalities of urban birds. One might expect that city birds are bolder and fearless. But her forthcoming results seem to suggest it is a bit more complicated.

Living in a city environment may not select for bold birds so much as select for those that can make those fine-tuned decisions, Clark said.

Crows are curious, but often neophobic (i.e., afraid of new stimuli). But whereas rural crows will often react to a possible threat -- like an unfamiliar person -- by flying away, an urban crow doesn't think quite so categorically: A city-dwelling crow might be wary of an unfamiliar face or object, but it will usually stick around and inspect new stimuli. In the big city, survival demands a combination of caution and curiosity.

We think that the way that birds adapt to urban environments is to become more analytical about what's novel, Clark said.

Birds Of A Feather?

Birdwatchers and researchers alike can start to spot individual characteristics in the birds they study.

Dale Forbes, who blogged about his work with scarlet macaws through the Costa Rica-based conservation organization called the Ara Project, wrote about the unique personalities he saw in the birds he was studying and gave them names, just as primatologist Jane Goodall named her chimpanzees.

One pair of male macaws that Forbes dubbed Freddy and Jorge reminded me of Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter book series, thanks to the way they were always together and getting up to mischief, he wrote in 2010.

Identifying birds' personalities can be useful in matchmaking. George Archibald, co-founder and former president of the International Crane Foundation, told National Geographic in 2009 that it was important to match endangered whooping cranes by personality type in captive-breeding programs.

What an aggressive female crane needs is a more-aggressive male crane to jump-start her hormones, Archibald said.

Also, crane love turns out to be somewhat blind: Sometimes a normal bird will pair with a real gimpy bird, Archibald said. And age is not important -- an older bird will pair with a much younger bird.

Where The Wild Things Are

One human gene that personality researchers have focused on is called DRD4, which encodes a dopamine receptor and is thought to play a role in exploration and novelty-seeking behavior.

Researchers have been examining DRD4 in a songbird called the great tit to see if any variants of the gene correlate with more adventurous birds.

The standard laboratory test to measure exploratory tendencies is to capture birds and put them in rooms with a variety of artificial perches. How often the bird flies or hops flies between the perches can indicate whether a bird is more adventurous or more cautious, the thinking goes.

A 2007 study conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology using a small group of hand-raised great tits found a correlation between a certain variant of DRD4 and stronger exploratory behavior.  When the researchers tested the results in a larger sample of wild birds, they found the same correlation in one population of wild birds, but not in three others.

We do not yet understand the differences between populations, Max Planck ornithologist Bart Kempenaers said in a statement in 2010.

There is a tendency to assign simplistic labels to personalities, like defining a bold bird as one that ignores danger and charges in toward something new. But the real roots of personality in birds -- as in humans -- are likely more intricate.

We need to be really careful and sophisticated about experiments and not glom onto simple tests, Binghamton University's Clark said.

Is it even possible to measure differences in personality scientifically? It's a touch unromantic to imagine that we'll someday work out the precise mixture of random chance and genetic fate that determine the complexities of humor, sentiment, or artistic taste. But it's a bit of a moot question at present, since personalized medicine and genomics is barely out of its infancy.

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